The National Senior Games will conclude several days before this article is published. Almost 14,000 senior athletes competed in 20 different sports in Albuquerque, N.M., which is elevated a mile closer to the sun, in a much thinner, lung-burning, atmosphere. An additional 10,000 spectators witnessed the events.
In all, 29 senior athletes from Sussex County and bordering Maryland counties competed. Five were from upstate, 13 downstate and 11 from surrounding Maryland towns. Without any financial sponsorship, these players venture all over the country each year representing the Delmarva Peninsula.
Here is a composite of those 13 Delaware players who represented you last week. They might be retired, 63 years old, and spent the last six months doing group practice drills once or twice a week. At least one day a week, they likely worked out in the gym, all the while observing a strict diet with limited alcohol and caffeine.
They played recreational pickleball three other times that same week, and had to finish in at least fourth place in their state tournament. They likely participated in three or four tournaments to stay tournament-tough and to earn points towards acceptance in national tournaments. Those tournaments were played in distant cities sometimes only reachable by air and with considerable travel expenses.
They did all of this so that, one June morning last week in New Mexico, they could play two to five pickleball matches. All of this effort and expense might be for five or six games of pickleball against the best senior players in the country. Is it worth it? You bet!
More than 2,000 other athletes joined Delaware in pickleball. The ladies led off on the first day with Women’s Doubles. In the 55-59 age group open to all skill ratings, Pearl Morris and Diane Milam (both of Rehoboth) did extraordinarily well and finished in seventh place, losing to the silver-medalist team.
(Yes, this is the same Pearl Morris competing on Team Cancer in our Survivors Competition, and the same lady who had double knee replacement two seasons ago. Pearl also teamed up with a fellow from Arizona to play quite well in Mixed Doubles.)
Linda Horst (Berlin, Md.) and Robbin Murray (Lewes) participated in the 60-64 age group. Rick Bell (Millsboro), with a Virginia partner, led off on Day 2 in the 55-59 age category, followed by Tony Hernandez (Middletown) and Mark Plugge (Easton, Md.). Bruce Smart (Laurel), with a Minnesota partner, followed. Bell won two rounds, until he ran into a team from Minnesota who could play and practice year-round in an indoor center.
In singles — something we hardly ever practice around Sussex County because of the shortage of courts — Rick Bell managed to win his first two matches, until he lost in a respectful match to the fifth-place finisher.
I called Rick and asked for an overview of these National Senior Games, versus the last one just two years ago. I was furiously scribbling notes as he came to life and started to bubble over with observations about this tournament.
“The level of play is explosive compared to the last National Senior Games. ... Players are coming from different sports faster than ever, and continue to bring new but effective styles of play. ... Athleticism and agility is unparalleled to any previous event I have participated in. ... Flexibility is absolutely amazing, as was hand speed at net.
“Mind you, we were a mile high, and stamina and cardio was superb. And it wasn’t just pickleball, in Field & Track, a 103-year-old woman ran a hundred meters in 46 seconds.”
It wasn’t until five more days passed that some of the other Women’s Doubles matches were played. First State’s Kathy Casey and Karen Gustafson, both of Rehoboth, participated in the 65-69 age group, as did Delia Wan of Lewes, who teamed with Helen White of Arlington, Va.
Our own Marion Lisehora, “Queen Mother of Delaware Pickleball,” won gold in pickleball and also in the volleyball competition. Her five children, as well as a son-in-law, are competing in the triathlon relay competition; and daughter Diane Milam, seventh place in pickleball, is also competing in biking. A Maryland team took silver in Women’s Softball.
When I submitted this article, there were more pickleball categories remaining to be played.
Those of us locally who have been fortunate enough to play against Pearl or Rick just shake our heads when we realize how they struggle as they advance in the competition at national events. Perhaps the reader can now appreciate why I have promoted the “practice culture,” and why I am always seeking training areas for our competitors so they can compete against national level players from much larger pickleball communities with better facilities.
A pickleball player simply cannot play recreational pickleball at Northside Recreation in Ocean City on a Monday and then compete with any success against the best in the nation on the following Saturday.
Please join me in applauding all of these senior players from Delmarva.
Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.
By Vaughn Baker
Special to the Coastal Point