octogenarian club of pickleball players from Ahwatukee

The informal octogenarian club of pickleball players from Ahwatukee include, from left: Dave Kraus, 84; Rose Cancellieri, 80; Chuck Copenhaver, 83; Joan Gillespie, 83; Babs Lester, 86; Joseph Augustine, 84; and David Dudak, 83.

A group of four octogenarian friends are daily players at the pickleball courts at Ahwatukee Recreation Center and the Pecos Community Center.

And summer heat doesn’t stop them

“I’m very good at it,” brags 84-year-old Joe Augustine. “I know what to do with the ball, what to do and what not to do with it.” 

Augustine, who has been playing the game for a decade, advocates pickleball’s physical and emotional benefits especially for seniors.

He’s not alone.

Pickleball got its start in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, when three fathers created a game that involved tennis paddles, a wiffle ball and a lowered badminton net to entertain their summer-vacationing children.

With modifications over 55 years, the game and equipment have evolved and retirees have embraced the game. It’s estimated more than 2 million adults, many of them older than 60, play in the U.S. alone.

“I go almost every day; I run around like a youngster,” said Augustine, a widower since 2016. “And it’s more than just the game, this is my family. This is my life now.”

Joan Gillespie, 83, is not only an avid player but a star on the courts. She won second place at the 2019 Margaritaville USA National Championships in her 80-85 single player division.

The 2020 National Championships were cancelled due to COVID-19, yet that wasn’t the only disappointment for Gillespie, who moved to Arizona with her husband in 1975.

“A good friend and I had made arrangements to spend the month of May teaching and playing pickleball in Armenia - pickleball isn’t played there yet,” she said. “COVID cancelled those plans, though we hope to reschedule when borders open up again.”

Gillespie has been a strong champion of pickleball since she first watched an exhibition by two women 10 years ago. 

“We then started the group at the Ahwatukee Rec Center.  At first, we played in the parking lot, and we did that for three years,” she recalled. “The Board of Management was reluctant at first but we finally got our courts and now we have one of the nicest facilities. Our four courts are busy all winter long, and in the summer, we’ll have three or four courts going mornings and evenings.”

Gillespie said she’s proud of her years advocating for the courts that opened two years ago at Pecos Park.

“I was really active in lobbying the city for the courts - I was at the City Council and Parks and Rec meetings. But we finally built 16 beautiful courts,” she said. 

“The neatest thing about Pecos is that during COVID, people can come and feel safe.  Families are coming,” she said. “Pickleball is easy to learn yet challenging to get good at.”

Like many others, Gillespie came to the sport from tennis.

“I was a tennis player for decades and pickleball is so different from tennis because you have a group and you rotate players in. With tennis, you have a foursome and that’s it.”

Gillespie is physically fit and springs about the pickleball court with energy that belies her eight plus decades.

“My body has held up pretty well and I attribute it to staying active,” the retired private investigator said. “I play at ARC, Pecos Park and Tempe Sports Complex that has eight courts. I’ve also played in Madrid, Spain and Rocky Point, Mexico.”

At 80, Rose Cancellieri is the youngster of the group of regular octogenarian pickleball players. Like some of the others, she was playing pickleball before Ahwatukee Rec Center built their pickleball facilities, back when the court lines were being drawn on ARC’s parking lot macadam.

Cancellieri is also a COVID-19 survivor, having contracted the disease in June. She is now using her beloved sport to accelerate her recovery.

“Since I’m still having symptoms, at the order of my doctor, I’m playing in order to increase my all over physical stamina, reflexes, mood, and overall health, and its working, she said. 

“The exercise improves my circulation and strengthens my muscles, and improves my overall metabolism.  Being out with my fellow players lifts my spirit.”

The 19-year Ahwatukee resident, who emigrated from New York City, said she finds pickleball a better sport over tennis for seniors to play regularly.

“There’s not as much running involved as the court is smaller than a tennis court. Having said that, the game is faster and one has to respond more quickly with the hard paddle and wiffleball,” she explained. 

“The game also allows the opportunity for social interaction since we change partners and opponents with each game,” said Cancellieri who also plays at Pecos and holds a silver medal from an American Pickleball Association tournament a few years ago. 

Dave Dudak, who settled in Ahwatukee seven years ago after traveling often from Chicago to visit his parents, was wooed to pickleball three years ago by a neighbor with whom he’d played golf with often.

“I started with a beginner’s class a couple hours a week and then I started playing evenings and mornings, and I just kept getting better. You do once you start to get the feel of the game,” said Dudak. “I never realized there was so much running and moving but you have to or you let them score on you.”

Dudak said ARC is working to get more seniors involved in pickleball and he’s personally encouraging his neighbors to give the game a go.

“We’re trying to grow the sport back to what it was and so far, we’re succeeding,” he said. 

Chuck Copenhaver is another player who started pickleball on the makeshift courts in the ARC parking lot. Formerly of Los Gatos, California, Copenhaver has lived in Ahwatukee 22 years.

He lauds both the exercise the game affords him at 83 and for the social aspect.

“It’s a great sport to take part in as you get older, and as we play about two to three hours a day, it’s great exercise, too,” said Copenhaver, who also plays at Pecos Community Center and on the new courts at the Tempe Sports Complex on Hardy Road.

“I also enjoy the social life and at our age we have nothing to prove, and everyone seems to get along with each other, and no one ever seems to get angry,” he said.

And they all say their peers should seriously consider joining them. 

“I encourage people to come give a try, and I’ll teach them,” offered Augustine. “I’ll share the game with them.”

“It’s open play and generally if someone comes and says ‘I’d like to give it a try’, somebody will put a paddle in their hand,” said Gillespie. 

While the Ahwatukee Recreation Center pickleball courts are available only to residents of the 1,628 homes between Knox and Elliott Roads that are governed by their Home Owner Association, the courts at Pecos Park are open to the public and are free.

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