The phone rang and my heart beat a bit faster.
“How are you, Meredith?” answered a familiar Irish lilt. “I’m good, and you?” I chirped before my desire to faint kicked in.
I was on the phone with Karen Corr.
She had just won the NAPT Summer 10 ball Classic in Grayslake, IL at Shooter’s Billiards. We had chosen to speak after our travel back as the finals had gone later than expected. The flashing lights and rushing fans of the winning moment were now just a memory; the brilliant glass trophy I pictured sitting on a mantle somewhere proper, next to its siblings.
“Congratulations again, that was quite an exciting match” I said of the thrilling, fast-paced finals. It was a field to be reckoned with that August weekend, and the Irish Invader (Karen’s fitting moniker) prevailed. Her final opponent, Eleanor Callado, fought well, but ultimately could not overcome the intense safeties and brutal combinations Corr executed.
“I really enjoyed all the combos,” I said and we shared a chuckle. “Yeah, unusual for me!” she agreed.
It was uncharacteristic of Karen to go for a 10-ball combination shot win, and she had two in a row in this final. One was nearly 90 degrees! Quite the crowd pleaser that one was. So pleased in fact, as soon as the last ball dropped, the table was rushed with adoring fans.
Watching live, I had wondered how a person deals with this. I mean, despite the impression one gets watching her play, Karen Corr is human. Being human while playing pool can sometimes be frustrating, and I’ve seen athletes react in a lot of different ways. I asked her in this moment with all the fans wanting autographs and pictures, what is it like for her. Is it frustrating? Joyful?
“No, no, it’s lovely really, especially now with it (pool) not being on ESPN.” She assured me. “A lot of people talk about the days of me and Allison… and snooker players coming over and you don’t realize how many people followed it. People are following even though they don’t get the opportunity to see us that much. No, it’s nice.”
The humility and observation in the answer took me a moment to calibrate to. It’s always a fear meeting your heroes that they are unaware or unappreciative of their fortune. Karen is such an accomplished athlete, but as we talked, it became abundantly clear my fears were unfounded here.
“When fans come up to you, though…Does it ever frustrate or take you out of your game?”
“No, not really. Enjoy it while the moment’s there. There’ll be a time when nobody will recognize you, ya know.” She said with a laugh. She recalled an awkward moment at a retail store after the billiard economy turned where someone semi-recognized her. She laughed it off. “My timing with Julie (Kelly) was really good and I’m always grateful for that.”
Friend and fellow Irish snooker player, Julie Kelly, told Karen about the blossoming WPBA tour in 1998. At that time, Karen was solely a snooker player. With overseas prizes for snooker taking a dive, Karen decided to cross the pond and try this “Pool” that was becoming such a big hit.
“What was it like for you back then? What did the world look like as a young champion?”
“In the beginning, around 16… for me, snooker was a hobby.”
I should mention here that by the age of 21 she had a world title in her “hobby”.
“And then when I was around 20, Barry Hearn started showing more interest. The men’s tour was always pretty good with money, so he was trying to promote the women’s game. So again, my timing was really good… then Allison (Fisher) came here in 95 and following her success, that’s when me and Julie decided to come over for the summer and just see what happened.”
“That worked out.” I couldn’t help say with a giggle. I remember watching her on my television, coming up through playing knowing her name, being told to study her game. If Karen Corr had gone back to Ireland after the summer, what would that have looked like? Would I know her name? Would my stroke be different? I pictured that world as she continued.
“In a way, it did yeah, she (Julie) had three sisters over in America and that made it so much easier. You know, to have a base.“
“When you were starting out, what was pool to you?”
“Coming from snooker it kind of seemed weird with the big pockets. It seemed so easy, the shot making part.” If you’re unfamiliar with snooker, it is similar to pool in as many ways as it is dissimilar. The table is bigger, the balls and pockets are smaller, the pockets are also rounded, the rules are different, and the cue is a good bit departed from pool's version. Snooker is, however, pool’s grandfather, and to switch games must have been interesting. I tried once to make the switch the other way and boy, did I say some bad words that day.
Karen explained after “The honeymoon period finished” that “it was time to learn what the game was about. The position play was a lot different. Using more side (spin), jump shots, a lot more fun aspects that you didn’t really have in snooker. The discipline from snooker obviously still carries to the day. “
It was good to hear the word fun from Karen. Pool is an exciting and dramatic game. I haven’t studied snooker, but I’m addicted to pool because of the shot making. It is the best feeling in the world to pull off a back cut, paper thin, against the rail, you-probably-shouldn’t-take-this shot. It feels great. I loved hearing her say it though.
“After all those world titles,” I asked, mildly amazed, “is there still joy in making those balls? Is there still that fun aspect?”
“Oh yeah, definitely.” At that, the five-year-old in me rejoiced.
She continued, “And since, you know, now that I’m working doing the carework, when I practice, it seems more quality of practice. You enjoy it more because you have a break. I enjoy the careworking side too.” We all have jobs and it seems the champion is exploring other options nowadays. “It’s kind of a good balance. If you had all day to practice, it seemed like hard work sometimes, but now I find it’s more enjoyable because the time I do get out there. It’s just a pleasure to still be competing at the age I am.”
It is something I truly treasure about pool that it doesn’t have a real age limit. Karen is still quite young at 47, but in most sports, her career would have been long past its prime. Pool is a different animal there, as not only is Karen still playing, but she is still dominating. Sometimes though, the time on the table shows.
“Several people were asking me about… you were wearing a back brace this weekend. Were you in pain the whole time?”
“Well I’m getting old now, I’ve been bending over the table for 30 odd years. So…” she laughs, “yeah, it does go on me. I was just making sure it (the brace) kept me going. Trying to give me that support. I’ve been trying to work out in a gym getting it a little bit stronger. But yeah, I’ve had to pull out of a couple matches because I just couldn’t bend over anymore.”
“Well it’s quite an accomplishment.” I say sincerely. “You pulled out ahead of quite a field.” Brittany Bryant, Jia Li, Eleanor Callado are just a few names that peppered the full 64 player bracket. “April Larson was champion last year, and she’s been playing quite hot. Do the younger players give you joy, watching the sport live on like that?”
“Oh yeah, definitely.” She brightened. “I mean, there’s a lot of great talent out there. Briana (Miller) - I played her there in Frederick. She beat me in the one side and we had a close match in the final. It’s challenging for me too, ya know?”
I watched that match and know Briana. I was rooting so hard for her. It’s a major feather in her cap at 21 to beat Corr once, but to also hold her own against her the second time around. I believe the end score was 7-4? Don’t quote me on that, internet. It was a great match to watch, and glad to hear Karen recognizes the young gun’s talent.
“I mean the game’s in good hands, but you want the game (industry) to give them the opportunities that we had, ya know?”
I think that’s one thing everyone in the pool industry can actually agree on. Beyond all the arguing about rules and unity and rankings, we all just want to see tomorrow look better for these players coming up. They are so talented and so deserving of every opportunity life can afford them.
We decided to end on that note, leaving the future of pool yet to be decided. We had some chit chat and bid our farewells. She’s local to my area, though, so I know I’ll see her around soon. I hope for a very long time. Pool has had some rough times, and the next chapter of pool seems uncertain, but with Karen there, I’d feel like we didn’t miss a beat.