On learning a new sport in my 77th year.
BY JUDITH G. ZALESNE
“What? Start a new sport now? Are you kidding? I’m 77 years old!” I knew how insistent my daughter could be when an idea got hold of her. So for good measure I added, “And you know my bad shoulder won’t let me.”
“No, Mom, I’m serious. You have to try it.” She was adamant. An avid athlete, she’d come back home from Savannah for a visit, and had heard a friend was running pickleball games at a nearby park.
Ridiculous. But I wanted to spend as much time as possible with her, so I agreed to go. I’d watch her from the sidelines. And besides, I had never seen a pickleball game. I’d heard it was like playing ping-pong while standing on the table.
My daughter knew well that if I could still play tennis—if a torn rotator cuff hadn’t taken that away—I’d still be playing as often as I could schedule games around my teaching obligations. Tennis was my addiction. It invigorated my body and satisfied my spirit. When my kids had been young, I’d started many summer mornings with an hour of singles followed by two hours of doubles. And on just as many summer afternoons, my kids would declare, “Wow, Mom! You’re in such a good mood!” I knew why.
Even the stresses of team tennis stirred me: the challenge of conquering pre-match anxiety and maintaining camaraderie amidst competition; the pressure to perform for the team’s sake even as I knew younger players would outrank me. I was only a 3.5-rated player, but everything about the game—especially the pure pleasure of playing—rewarded me. So when the pain of that torn rotator cuff banished me from the court, I assumed the pause was temporary. After therapy—or, if necessary, surgery—I’d be right back.
Not quite. Just getting a surgeon to operate on me proved a challenge. The first two I saw declined to accept me as a patient. “You’re not a case for rotator cuff surgery,” reported Dr. First Choice. “Too much arthritis.” Dr. Second Choice gave it a 50-50 chance. “Well, maybe a little less,” he added. Dr. Third Choice left the door open just a crack: “Difficult, but I think I can do it.” My ecstatic response to his minimal optimism revealed how desperate I was to play again.
But my initial therapy, my arthroscopic surgery, and three months of post-op rehabilitation were all erased one day when I put my hand in my pocket to reach for keys, and something in my shoulder snapped. A new rotator cuff tear. I knew then my fate was sealed: my court days were behind me. The good news was that, unlike the original tear, the new one caused only minor pain. The bad news: I could no longer even take a milk carton from the upper shelf of the refrigerator, much less raise a tennis racquet.
So my daughter’s insistence on dragging me to a pickleball court that day puzzled me. But I went. From the sidelines, I watched her send a Wiffle ball over the net with a small paddle and position herself for the return. Yes, it was like playing ping-pong standing on the table! Groundstrokes were the rule, with overhead shots occasional exceptions. Twenty minutes after watching from the sidelines, I sensed my body instinctively yearning to move in sync with hers.
“Want to try it?” she called. Ancient body, meet sports-addicted head. My adrenaline surged. Decades of tennis, tennis, and more tennis had so thoroughly hard-wired my brain neurons that two years of shoulder pain were no match for the endorphins that pushed me on. I had something like an out-of-body sensation as my legs propelled me onto the court.
For the next half-hour, my daughter and I lightly batted the Wiffle ball up and back, up and back. Unlike a tennis racquet, the lightweight paddle did not affect my shoulder, even on the rare reach to return a high volley. And the badminton-sized court—a lot smaller than a tennis court—gave me a reasonable chance to get to the ball. So when her very kind pickleball friends invited this gray-haired novice to play in a doubles game, I accepted—and performed like a true beginner: poorly.
Yet playing wasn’t difficult. It would mainly be a matter of adjusting to the speed of the shots, which would require practice and concentration. And I had to admonish myself for volleying from the “kitchen,” a seven-foot, mandatory-bounce area adjacent to the net. For me, another hitch was my natural impulse to hit my best tennis stroke: a cross-court shot to the alley. The problem? Pickleball courts have no alleys!
That day pickleball ignited—no, exploded—my dormant tennis addiction. The inner urge that used to send me sprinting onto the tennis court had flipped back into the On position, overriding my fear of further shoulder injury. Incredulous, I winked at my daughter. “Just because I can’t raise a tennis racquet,” I told her, “doesn’t mean I can’t handle a pickleball paddle.”
My elderly shoulder was damaged, but my playing genes were not. Good exercise, game discipline, great camaraderie, and plain old fun—pickleball offered it all. It’s just a game, but it gave me one of life’s rare second chances: an opportunity to replace a lost love. It’s just a game—but it gave me, once more, a vigorous start to my morning, launching an upbeat mood for the rest of the day. I’m old enough to know that a game can be so much more than “just” a game. One more bonus: it’s so easy to learn that I can play it with my kids and teenage grandkids.
My daughter went back to Savannah. I continued playing in that neighborhood game two or three times a week. That was three years ago. I am still playing.
Will this aged player ever be a great pickleballer? Absolutely not. But is she grateful to be back on a court? Absolutely. Someday I suppose I’ll again have to say my racquet days are over. But I’ve already “been there, done that” once. So until then, this octogenarian intends to just keep swinging.