Congratulations to Diane Schöler, on Friday 14th April, she celebrates her 90th birthday, she is the oldest living world champion.
The former Diane Rowe, partnering her 20 minutes younger twin sister Rosalind, who sadly passed away in 2015, they won the women’s doubles title at the 1951 World Championships in Vienna, before in 1954 regaining the title in London.
In the Konzerthaus in Vienna, at the time, 17 years and 320 days old; their combined ages remain to this day the youngest ever to hold the W.J. Pope Trophy high; an achievement put into context when considering Japan’s Mima Ito and Hina Hayata who were both 18 years of age when they reached the final in 2019 in Budapest.
Furthermore, in 1951 neither Diane nor Rosalind possessed a world ranking!
Adding to the feat, in the final they faced the prodigious Romanian pairing of Angelica Rozeanu and Sari Sartz; to describe the English pair as outsiders was an understatement.
The late Ron Crayden recalled the contest:
“Could they overcome their opponents and their own emotions? Our fears were groundless for they played like veterans. The first two games had the audience weak with nervous excitement as the twins were trailing to the very end. Suddenly there was a dramatic change when Ros and Di struck with the venom of angered cobras; their opponents, Angelica Rozeanu and Sari Szasz, wilted under the pressure and the roof was almost raised as the twins took a two-nil lead.
To their great credit the Romanians recovered to force a deciding fifth game, 21 points and five serves before change the format, Diane and Rosalind led 10-4 at the change of ends, it was lead they never surrendered.
“Looking back, no one thought we had a chance in Vienna. We were not even seeded, My main memory of that finals’ night was of the cheers of encouragement from British forces in the audience.” Diane Schöler.
Charles Wyndham in the book “Table Tennis Twins” published in 1967 underlined the fact.
“I can’t believe it’s true”, whispered Diane to Rosalind. “Is it really happening to us?” The following morning at 5 am. they took off in a large passenger plane for England. When they landed, they were greeted by reporters and large crowds of excited people. “We really must be World Champions”, said Rosalind. “I’ve never seen such crowds before. I can scarcely believe that they are here to meet us. It was several hours before the two girls fought their way through the crowds and managed to reach the door of their home where their mother was waiting for them.”
A welcome from thousands of admirers, but as Charles Wyndham described the welcome from their mother was very different, warm typically British, down to earth.
“Come in”, she said. “You must be tired out. I’ve got the kettle on for a nice cup of tea. I expect you could both do with one after being abroad for so long. “To both girls home meant quiet and a good rest. The following week, however, they were back at work in an office and practising table tennis every evening.”
Incredible but in 1954 beyond incredible. Playing very much on home soil in the Wembley Arena, the sisters being born in Marylebone, a car journey of less than half an hour distant; in the only all-English women’s doubles final ever at a World Championships, they beat Kathy Best and Ann Haydon to clinch the title.
Furthermore, the day was their coming of age; it was their 21st birthdays!
“Looking back on this special day, it was the overwhelming feeling that we were destined to win the title; however, we were more than aware that our British opponents were first class and were not to be taken lightly.” Diane Schöler.
Now what are the chances of this idyllic doubles pair, Diane the left hander and Rosalind the right hander, becoming World champions on the most significant birthday of all, at a venue which is within walking distance of where you were born, against colleagues and in opposition to a future Wimbledon champion? Ann Haydon, later Ann Jones, won the women’s singles title at the famous tennis tournament in 1969.
Maybe finding Elvis Presley live and well and signing Blue Suede Shoes in Gracelands?
“Full concentration throughout was the order of the day. Most memorable for me was the absolute relief after the last winning point. The support of the 10,000 spectators throughout the tournament for the English players was tremendous!” sighed Diane Schöler.
Make absolutely no mistake; Diane and Rosalind Rowe were superstars; they stood alongside the very best.
They were national heroines, everybody knew the Rowe twins; every year the Eagle Sports Annual was produced, it was a prized Christmas present. Always two pages were dedicated to table tennis; just as Stanley Matthews, the footballer was revered, Stirling Moss, the racing driver admired, so were the Rowe twins. In fact, rarely were they referred to as the Rowe twins; they were the famous Rowe twins.
Also, it was an era of hope; some three months after the success in the Wembley Arena, rationing in the United Kingdom ended. Diane and Rosalind Rowe reflected this new era of prosperity and they set an example of which Victor Barna, very much their mentor, was proud.
“They are popular because they have great talent, fighting spirit, personality and charm. They dress neatly and their behaviour on the table is exemplary. They never gasp or yell if they miss a shot and never play to the gallery”, Victor Barna (1952).
Success in 1954, in what overall was to prove their fourth of five consecutive World Championships women’s doubles finals. After Vienna in 1951, they were runners up in Mumbai in 1952 (then known as Bombay), the following year in Bucharest and in 1955 in Utrecht.
A quite incredible record, for Diane the record is even more stunning. In 1955 Rosalind retired from table tennis, married John Cornett; later she became a single figure handicap golfer. Diane continued with her table tennis career.
Partnering Ann Haydon, she was the women’s doubles runner up at the 1957 World Championships in Stockholm, semi-finalist in Tokyo in 1956 and in Dortmund in 1959.
In every World Championships from Vienna in 1951 to Dortmund in 1959, Diane secured a podium finish; there was no World Championships in 1958, it had been agreed at the 1956 Congress in Tokyo that as and from 1957 the tournament would be held biennially.
Eight consecutive medals and there is one more; in 1963 in Prague, she was the runner up in partnership with Mary Shannon.
Only once in a 13-year period did Diane not secure a women’s doubles medal at a World Championships; in 1961 in Beijing, partnering Jean Harrower, the duo experienced a second round defeat at the hands of China’s Ma Kuang-Hung and Ti Chiang-Hua.
Nine women’s doubles World Championships medals, it is a feat no player has ever surpassed and only one equalled; between 1928 in Stockholm and 1938 in Prague, Hungary’s Maria Mednyanszky won seven times whilst being twice a bronze medallist.
Following retirement from international play, alongside Johnny Leach, Diane assessed players for the “Boy and Girl of the Year Award” at Butlin’s Holiday Camps supported by the News of the World newspaper.
Later, she became Secretary and then President of the Swaythling Club International, the appetite for table tennis unwavering.
To Diane who inspired more than one generation, happy birthday.