Pickleball, Anyone? Senior Athletes Play New Games And Old The National Senior Games taking place in Cleveland have some sports in common with the Summer Olympics, like track and field, basketball and swimming. There's also shuffleboard and horseshoes. And this year, there's a new sport, pickleball — a tennis/pingpong/whiffle ball hybrid — that's growing fast.

Pickleball, Anyone? Senior Athletes Play New Games And Old

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The National Senior Games have been going on in Cleveland for almost two weeks now. Many of the events are familiar: track and field, basketball, swimming, though there are differences.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Go grandma, go.

GREENE: Come on, grandma. The athletes at these games are all over the age of 50. And some of the sports you'd never see at the Olympics. Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: About 13 years ago, Rosemarie Pietromonaco moved from New York to a retirement community in Florida. And one morning she walked out of her house and heard this curious sound.


ROSEMARIE PIETROMONACO: And I went over there to look at it.

JAFFE: And it turned out to be something called pickleball.

PIETROMONACO: So I took the first class and I fell in love with it, right then and there.

JAFFE: Pickleball is played on a court with a net. It's sort of half way between tennis and ping pong.

PIETROMONACO: This is what the ball looks like. It's a modified whiffle ball.

JAFFE: And players hit it with a paddle instead of a racquet. Pickleball was invented in 1965 in the backyard of Washington Congressman Joel Pritchard. According to legend, the game was named after the family dog, Pickles, who chased down the stray balls - which is a great story but probably untrue.

In any case, there are now around 150,000 pickleball players in the United States. The game has grown fast and it's played fast. You have to be in shape. Pietromonaco is competing in singles, doubles and mixed doubles in the 70 to 74 age bracket.

PIETROMONACO: Everyone knows your age because of the games. It's just not something that we're ashamed of or anything like that. We're proud of it because we're playing,

JAFFE: Pickleball is a new sport in the Senior Games this year. But some games seem as old as the idea of retirement itself.

Shuffleboard is played competitively and with dead seriousness at the Senior Games. At practice, 65-year-old Marcus Hurley of New Mexico says he began playing the game a little over 10 years ago.

MARCUS HURLEY: I'm a disabled vet so a lot of the arduous stuff I can't do anymore. But shuffleboard requires as much thinking and finesse as anything else.

JAFFE: Indeed, it's the Goldilocks of sports; can't push the disc too hard or too softly, it has to be just right. And it has its nasty side. You can negate your opponent's score by knocking his or her disc out of position.

HURLEY: There is a lot more to it than people think from just watching a two minute segment on "The Love Boat."

JAFFE: Hurley proved his knowledge of the sport by winning the gold medal in men's singles in his age bracket.



JAFFE: And that's the sound of 90-year-old Hazel Trexler-Campbell pitching a ringer in horse shoes. She was raised on a farm in North Carolina. And as she tells it, she's been pitching horse shoes since she's been alive.

HAZEL TREXLER-CAMPBELL: I had brothers and you know how brothers want to play horseshoes, ball and stuff like that? And that was our only game when we were young.


JAFFE: And they used actual horse shoes that horses wear, not the larger, heftier ones used for competition. Hazel Trexler-Campbell paints hers gold, inspired perhaps by the seven gold medals she's won over her years of competition. She won gold in horse shoes again this year by default: she was the only competitor in her age group.

TREXLER-CAMPBELL: When I was young - I'm talking about I'm first in the games - I did not get many medals. So I tell people if you can't outrun them, outlive them, and then you'll get your medals.


JAFFE: Trexler-Campbell won some other gold medals too at these Senior Games, with competition. She won gold in the discus and shotput, where she set a new Senior Games record. Her explanation for all her athletic success: I guess I just like to throw things.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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