When I heard about the 2023 National Senior Games, I was curious to learn more. Given the opportunity to interview some of the female athletes I decided to talk to two competitors in guess what sport? Pickleball! Yep, my favorite paddle sport.
What are the National Senior Games (NSG)?
The NSG began in 1987 with 2,000 older athletes (50+) and has grown to become the world’s largest Olympic-style qualified multi-sport event in the United States. It’s more than just games. The National Senior Games Association exists to promote health and well-being for adults 50 and over through fitness, education and sport. Lots of boomers are involved in the NSG.
The NSG is held every other year and in 2023 will be played in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from July 7 – 18. This summer, there will be over 1,100 medaled events across 21 Medal Sports. For all you sports enthusiasts, it’s too late to enter for 2023 as registration closed on May 2nd. However, more information about the 2023 National Senior Games can be found online at nsga.com, along with results and records posted online after each event.
Getting to know two senior female pickleball competitors
It was fun to talk to pickleball rock stars Alice and Leurene. They were so humble. Both play other paddle sports as well as pickleball. I hope when you read their remarks that you’ll be inspired by the dynamic duo. I was not only in awe of their personal athletic abilities past and present, but also of their professional accomplishments while raising their families and what they continue to achieve. I hope I can be as active when I’m their age.
Here are excerpts. Leave a comment and LMK what you think after you read it.
Tell me about your background.
Alice: “I started college before women played sports. I started playing at the University of Florida. I was a professional tennis player when I was younger. I taught tennis and coached tennis for many years. I loved coaching. I miss it terribly. I started the women’s tennis team at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. It’s really fun to be a part of organizing something and making it possible for so many people to play.
When I had my kids I took a coaching job at Yale University. Yale already had a women’s tennis team. There is no better place than Yale. It was a fantastic coaching job and it was wonderful for me. I got to go to some of the classes and I met fantastic people. We just had our 32nd team reunion in Austin, TX. We have a reunion every year and these women are just phenomenal people.
Today I run a horse farm. I used to be a horseback rider. Not anymore. And I have to deal with the bears who try to get in my garage.”
Leurene: “I’m from Northeastern Ohio. I’ve lived in Ohio all my life. Now I winter in Florida.
I was in the technical field. I was a research scientist. Science was the only thing I liked. It was a man’s world. We went through a lot of trials to accomplish what we did. I ended up getting an early retirement from my job.
Sports was something I got into later in life.”
When did you start playing pickleball?
Alice: “I played in the National Senior Games. I started with track and field. And then I played badminton and table tennis and then they dropped the nets one day and I started playing pickleball too. The National Senior Games would not allow me to play a sport in which I was professional. So I wasn’t allowed to play tennis.
Before Covid I tried to win a Gold Medal in all 50 states and I had about five states to go. I would rather play the National Senior Games than anything else. They have regional qualifying tournaments that I play in too. With NSG every state has a qualifier.”
Leurene: “I was running a lot of different sports for the community. I played pickleball down in Florida and was asked to get involved back in Ohio. I started Pickleball in the local church.
When we first started we didn’t have many people who were interested. That was about 10 years ago. We only had two to three courts in the beginning. Then we expanded to six courts. Now when it’s a rainy day and people have to come inside we have 50-60 people.”
What do you enjoy about the game?
Alice: “The nice thing is you can just go play. You don’t have to organize a game. You just say hey, I’ll see you at 10:00 a.m. Whereas tennis you really want people of similar ability. You need to have lessons to play tennis. But pickleball anybody can have fun in five minutes. That’s the real advantage of the sport.
Another reason I like pickleball is it gives me the opportunity to meet people coming from all directions. I just played the Pickleball Open Championships in Naples, Florida.”
Leurene: “Pickleball is the best sport there is. It just has everything going for it. It’s easy to learn, everybody can play it, any skill level can play, It’s social, which we all need. Which is absolutely wonderful.
I happened to be National Ambassador for pickleball. They had the outing for all ambassadors down in Florida. I went to that outing. It was a 2 week event where they had seminars and practice sessions. It was great. They said we should get youth involved in pickleball.
I started a pickleball youth program about four years ago. I teach kids ages 10 -18. There are so many good things about pickleball. We also got parents to play and then they got their grandparents to play too. I have three generations of pickleball players now in my groups. And they play together. Which you cannot do with other sports.”
Side note: In the middle of our interview Leurene was getting a few phone calls. That’s because she was setting up a pickleball tournament in her township. She had 50 people signed up so far. Isn’t this woman incredible?
As a senior athlete, how do you stay conditioned or fit for the game?
Alice: “That’s not the best topic to ask me. I just play. But my tennis skills do help me. Pickleball is just an easy knockoff of tennis. Tuesday I played badminton 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. and pickleball 12-2 p.m. and then table tennis from 2-6 p.m. I’d love to tell you that I do more but really I have fun.
I don’t have any mantra before a tournament. I use my training from tennis. I watch the ball. I’m not chatty, I’m there to play. To me it’s a business. That’s my routine. Physically I used to be really fast and now as a senior I have to really concentrate because everything is more difficult.”
Leurene: “I live on 27 acres. I have lots of mowing to do. If I mow everything it will take me 9 – 10 hours. I usually don’t do it all at once. My son just bought me a battery operated mower. I was so excited about that. That was my Mother’s Day present. The last present he got me was a battery operated chainsaw.
I still live in the same house that my husband and I build many years ago. There’s always a lot of work to do here. I still go to Florida during the wintertime. I don’t like the cold.”
Any pickleball tips for senior women who want to improve their game?
Alice: “I write every month for Pickleball Magazine. I give tips there. It’s sort of like anything else. If you want to be good at something you have to study what it takes to be good. In the case of pickleball, I think a lot of people make the mistake that they think there are a lot of transfer skills from tennis. And there are but you have to learn each sport individually. And not try and be a tennis player on the pickleball court. Pickleball has its own nuances and it requires certain skills. I think it’s worthwhile taking lessons from a pickleball pro and learning the game correctly.
Age is not a joke. You don’t want to get hurt in pickleball because you want to be able to keep playing. Always turn to your side and scissor back and walk back so that you don’t fall backwards.”
Pickleball is one of the few sports that has evolved during the internet age. Several people I’ve met say they’ve learned off the internet. They’ve watched Ben Johns in matches and YouTube clips and gotten some good instruction. With pickleball you can acquire a great deal of information on the internet from reputable people.
Try to play pickleball tournaments. You really learn from tournaments. You learn from other people.”
Leurene: “A lot of people ask me, you have a pretty good serve. They ask me to help them. They’re so happy when I do. Once you get a good serve, you don’t put it into the net or put it up high, that can make a difference. The secret to a good serve is you bend over and if you hit it in front of you and above your knee it will go up, up, up and if you hit it a little bit below the knee it will skim the net. Physics will tell you that. And you have to follow through. I tell people to look at where the court is. The court does not move. What does move is the paddle and the ball. Watch the ball and watch the paddle and then smack it hard. It’s a matter of practice.
My backhand was not very good. But table tennis helps me improve it. The reason is because you play it on a table instead of a floor and you have a smaller field. When I improved my backhand in table tennis I improved my backhand in pickleball.
When I coach boys I tell them not to smack so hard until they have better control of the ball. There are times to hit it hard but there are times to hit it soft. I encourage them to watch pickleball videos on You Tube.
Some pros take their warm up by dinking only. There’s an art to dinking. You’re only 7 feet from the net and it’s so critical to do dinking properly.”
Any other wisdom you would like to share with other senior women who want to pursue their dreams later in life?
Alice: “The nicest part of playing pickleball as a senior is you make terrific friends. We have a pickleball community here and we check on each other. We have luncheons and it becomes way more than a sport but a way of life. I’ve also gotten a chance to see different places through playing the National Senior Games.
Everybody thinks they know what’s coming as they get older. And they don’t. Then when you do get older you understand. Would I have played polo if I knew I would have to have knee replacements? I guess I would have played anyway.
I’d love to be climbing mountains but I don’t think I could now. I’m glad I climbed the ones that I did when I was younger.“
Leurene: “One of the things I tell people is don’t miss an opportunity. If you have an opportunity to do things, do them. When people ask me to do things I always say yes. And it’s brought me great joy. It’s brought me great things in life. Sometimes I look back and I think, I almost missed that opportunity because I didn’t think I was ready. And that’s so critical. Take the opportunity and see where it leads you.
The other thing I tell people is the attitude that you have is so critical. You can be a sourpuss or complain about somebody who didn’t do things, but you can change things. You can make it better. It’s about having a positive attitude.”
Extraordinary senior women
There you have it. Two extraordinary senior women and athletes. I wish Alice and Leurene the best of luck — may they win many medals this summer.