Kara Adema (formerly Klyn) was the most dominant air hockey women’s champion in the 1990s. But she wears that crown with kind of a dubious pride, and for many years campaigned against the need for gender specific rankings. For her there was always only one true world ranking: the one that was obtained against all of the testosterone in the room. Although she has been retired from air hockey for the past decade, she was a permanent fixture during the middle third of its history.
We feel very lucky to have tracked down the legendary Kara Klyn for this article! We asked her to talk about her most memorable air hockey moment, and this is what she said:
All air hockey players remember the table that got them hooked. I was 19 and it was 1989 in a shaggy little arcade in Fremont, California called Galaxy. They had ten shiny-new Tornado foosball tables and one Dynamo brown top. I could never beat any of the guys in foosball. But on the air hockey table—that was a different story.
Somehow, a flyer for an air hockey tournament in Mountain View—about 20 miles away—made it to Galaxy. They guy behind the counter there was excited to show it to me. A few weeks later I found myself at the California State Championships with some of the best players in the world. I had no idea air hockey could be that competitive, or that amazing. That first moment seeing professional play I was so intimidated I wanted to fade into the background and just be one of the girls that just looks on. But the look on my face gave me away. I wanted to play like them. And they wanted me to learn. Even though I was thoroughly defeated in that tournament, I won friends there that I would play against, and travel, promote, and experience random adventures in life with for the next several years.
By the time the early 90s came around I was working with Mark Robbins and Tim Weissman and was fully entrenched in promoting the sport in California, and occasionally around the country. I was learning the art of organizing major tournaments and building up prizes. I loved traveling and meeting new players. I had won a couple of women’s championships at that point and while having that title was very cool, my overall ranking was for me, personally, disappointing. Even if it was considered “good” for a female player. But it so happened that my best air hockey moment happened that same year in Littleton at a Colorado state tournament.
I was a hippy at heart then and I felt like I just fit right in with all the friendly people and the beautiful country. Being short on cash in those days I stayed with local players. I thought it was cool that the Colorado players that had been around the air hockey table a few times had a Brunswick table in their living room. Mark showed me “The Barn” filled with Brunswick tables. And by helping Mark with a few odd jobs around his place (and there are plenty of opportunities there;), one might luck out and score a Brunswick mallet, a devastating Berger puck, or some other interesting piece of air hockey history he has buried there.
But my best moment happened in a little sunken arcade within a giant indoor entertainment center. Spirits among the players was high that weekend. There was fresh snow (which was a treat for the Californians and Texans), great friends, a new laser tag gallery which we had passes to, and some truly great angles to video tape play from above the arcade pit.
While all tournaments are fun and intensely competitive, this one had a little extra undertone of fun infused in it. I went in the losers bracket my second or third match. Then something happened. I don’t know if I just stopped worrying about when I would lose and let my instincts take over, or if I found a new confidence from within. But I just kept on winning my matches. I rose above all but seven other players that weekend in the main bracket. I remember watching a video tape of that final match thinking…”Is that me playing?”
It’s been almost 20 years, since then and I think it was the highest finish ever by a woman. I didn’t even realize that at the moment. Does it still stand? I don’t know. I have won seven women’s titles against some very tough women (Andy Yevish and some others may say six titles, but that’s another story itself). But placing eighth in the main bracket was by far, my best air hockey moment.
Editor’s note: In a future installment Kara will break down her personal vendetta against the notion of holding women’s tournaments in air hockey. Looking forward to it, Kara!
Kara met her future husband Mike in 1991 and became one of the first functioning air hockey couples. They were married in 1999 and now have a beautiful daughter. Although Kara’s been out of air hockey for a while—in order to concentrate on school, career, and family—she and Mike still play each other on an old Brunswick, next to that Mustang (the other classic) in the garage.
Her portfolio and design work can be seen at: http://www.karaadema.com/
Previously on My Most Memorable Moment, iconoclastic Dallas native Wil Upchurch descended into the Wolf’s den—Green’s Gameroom in Houston, Texas—to take on the cool kids, led by air hockey wunderkind Tim Weissman. If you missed the first half of Wil’s coming-of-age narrative, please click back to the PREVIOUS POST in order to get up to speed!
Tim emerged from that car with the confidence of the rich kid on a field trip. You know the one: The guy who buys all the stuff you want to buy even though you only have five bucks, and that’s for lunch? He stretched as Seal went into the final chorus, then reached into the back seat and pulled out his bag (much cooler than mine) as the sound diminished toward the end of the song. Then he shut the door, reached into the open window, and finally removed the keys. Who shuts the door and then turns the car off? Tim Weissman, that’s who, because the universe loves him.
In a heaven of people there’s only some want to fly… Ain’t that crazy?… Oh babe… Oh darlin…
The tournament came and went that weekend. Tim won… duh. I finished a disappointing 15th, and made my way back to Dallas to regroup, get better, and look forward to the next time. But a funny thing happened when I got back into town. Seal came on the radio, and I didn’t hate that song anymore. In fact, I could kinda see why people liked it. Seal’s voice was great, the lyrics were interesting…
Wait a minute! I thought to myself. What’s happening here?
And that was when I realized—when I was hearing that song, I was seeing Tim in my mind’s eye, emerging from his car and stretching languorously in the hot Houston sun, sure that whatever waited for him inside Green’s was going to turn out for the best.
In that moment I realized a fundamental truth about being a winner, a champion. Winners weren’t outside the circle or inside the circle, winners drew the circle. Tim could love that song for the same reason he could shut the car door before he took out the keys—because he was in control. Tastemakers and trendsetters don’t work hard to pick the next big thing…they wear it, they use it, they live it. And people get that, and they admire them for being in control, for loving what they love and doing what they do. That’s what makes it a hit.
Seal didn’t write his song to please his market or to conform to some imagined standard of popularity. No, he did the best he could do, and knew it was good, and walked through the world knowing that until even I had to admit that it wasn’t just “that damn song,” but a damn good song. Tim, with his unique diamond drift and out defense, wasn’t trying to please the Old Guard by mastering their techniques… he was doing the best he could do and knowing it was good.
As a young upstart air hockey player who had never seen Tim lose a tournament, I couldn’t help but always be gunning for him. I knew if I could take him down, I could take down anyone. You don’t get to be pack leader by picking off the whelps, after all. But seeing Tim enjoy that song taught me a new perspective. Before I saw him only as a villain, as someone I had to defeat. But now I felt like Zeus, raging against the mighty titan Kronos, mixing in feelings of admiration with the drive to destroy.
In that moment, my most memorable moment, I learned that it was ok to admire my opponents for who they were—for their skills, their successes, and the things they had that I didn’t—because that freed me to do the best I could, and to know that it was good. It freed me to draw my own circle. And that was the first step to becoming a champion.
Editor’s note: Wil won his world championships in 1997 and 2007. At this rate he will have to wait seven more years to win his third. That will make him the oldest player to ever win a final, by far.
Wil Upchurch is happily married and teaches public speaking in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
In many ways, two-time World Champion Wil Upchurch is the perfect embodiment of all things that make air hockey players…well… air hockey players. Outsize in both personality and proportion, Wil is cheerful, raucous, intelligent, powerful, and opinionated—part gamer, part athlete, part non-conformist, and all animal when he steps up to the Table. Wil is nicknamed the Juggernaut for good reason; when he gets up to speed he is not unlike that humongous spheroid rock at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark that crushes everything in its path—except he’s hairier. And sweatier.
We asked Wil to talk about his favorite air hockey moment in his long and storied career. This is what he said.
The year was 1991 and I was just a young upstart air hockey player, though one that had already achieved a fair amount of success. I lived in Dallas, Texas, where I practiced with my friends and occasionally got to test my skills against two of my air hockey heroes—Paul Marshall and Mark Robbins—the two men who had introduced me to the sport.
Being from Dallas, I lived outside the air hockey Mecca of Houston, and could only imagine going to Colorado or Philadelphia to play against the greats that resided in those places. I was on the outside, looking in. Being a teenage boy with somewhat… esoteric… tastes in hobbies and interests, I felt on the outside of pretty much everything else as well.
There was a song on the radio that summer by a new artist named Seal. It was called “Crazy,” and I didn’t care for it at all. It played over and over again on the radio as I drove down to Houston for Vince Schappell’s Houston City Classic. What I wouldn’t have given for an iPod. But I endured it, and arrived at Green’s Gameroom in Memorial City Mall ready to live up to the high expectations I had set by placing third in the Texas State Championship earlier that year. The same doubts that plague me even now crept into my mind, those that said, “they all know you’re not that good” and “they all know each other, you’re here alone.”
Crazy yellow people walking through my head… One of them’s got a gun, to shoot the other one.
Though the Old Guard had welcomed me into the sport with open arms, the young players had not been so kind. It wasn’t so much that they were cocky—boy were they cocky—but that they were close to my age, and they were better than me. And they knew it. “Green’s Wolverines,” their shirts said. Shirts that marked them as together. As something special. Their de facto leader was Tim Weissman, air hockey wunderkind, who by that time was on a winning streak of a dozen tournaments or more. He seemed untouchable, unapproachable… especially to an outsider like me.
So it was that I arrived at Green’s on Saturday morning, ready to get inside and start warming up before the tournament began. As I pulled my air hockey bag out of the car, I heard that damn song echoing across the parking lot.
No we’re never gonna survive, unless… we get a little crazy…
I turned to see who was blasting it out their open windows, and it was a little red sportscar pulling into a space right in front of the arcade. I’d had to park several rows away. The person inside the car had the gall to just sit there jamming to the song while those of us on the outside suffered. As the door started to open, I thought to myself, Oh good, it’s stopping. But in fact it kept playing, even as the driver of that sportscar, none other than Tim Weissman, emerged.
Of course, I thought. He drives a sportscar, has a hot girlfriend, wins twelve tournaments in a row, has a great group of friends that whip me on the table every time I step up, and he likes that damn song. I never felt more like Ralph Macchio than I did at that moment. At least air hockey didn’t involve getting my leg swept…
…to be continued: Can Wil defeat the Cobra Kai, or will he scurry back to Reseda? (Dallas, I mean.) And what about Elisabeth Shue?
Wil Upchurch is happily married and teaches public speaking in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.