Pickleball players show off beloved 'geezer sport' at Rocky Mountain State Games

 

Ken Curry's feet dance with surprising agility when he plays pickleball.

Though well past his days of playing professional tennis, the Colorado Springs resident hasn't missed a beat.

Where many of the other athletes in the Rocky Mountain State Games mixed doubles competition are working just to keep a rally going, Curry and his partner Cherie Chao are engaged in a high-speed warm-up. They practice all kinds of shots, taking turns lobbing the ball so that the other can spike it back.

For two athletes who have been playing racquet sports for most of their lives, pickleball wasn't much of a challenge to pick up.

The hip replacements made it a little bit more difficult, though.

Curry, 60, had his hip replaced in December 2013 and Chao, 57, had the same surgery almost two years ago.

"I gave it about six months until I was back on the court," Chao said. "I was really destroyed, I didn't think I needed a new hip."

Now, the duo is one of the top mixed doubles teams not only at the RMSG, but arguably in the country.

"We're kind of the 'hipsters,'" Chao joked.

They plan on playing together in the national pickleball tournament in Casablanca, Ariz., in November, and Curry says they have a shot at winning the thing.

He should know. Curry has competed in the national tournament - the most prestigious pickleball tournament in the country - for the past two years. He earned a silver medal in men's doubles in 2013 and a bronze last year, just 11 months removed from his hip surgery.

This year, he plans on competing in singles, men's doubles and mixed doubles.

"I think we have a good shot at winning," he said. "She's very good, has a strong history with racquet sports."

So does Curry. After playing four years of tennis at CSU-Pueblo - and appearing in the Division II national tournament each year - he decided he wanted to take some time off school before enrolling in medical school.

So he became a professional tennis player. And it led him all the way to the 1978 Australian Open.

Though Curry didn't make it out of the qualifying rounds of the prestigious tournament, in his prime he held a world ranking.

After a year and a half of professional tennis, Curry retired to attend medical school.

He later worked in the electrophysiology department at Memorial Hospital.

And when his brother introduced him to pickleball, Curry was initially hesitant to pick up the new sport.

"I thought it was a geezer sport," he confessed. "But I came out and I tried it and got hooked."

And, nearly four years later, he's training in a completely different sport for his third national tournament with Chao, who has won several state championships in both badminton and platform tennis.

Both players see the similarities between pickleball and the other racquet sports they've played.

Patience, placement and racquet coordination are just a few of the skills that have transferred over.

But they also acknowledge the differences - namely pickleball's target demographic.

"It's really good for seniors because it gives them social opportunities," Steve Boone, one of the sports' RMSG commissioners, said. "It's adult play, and you just don't get to do that much past the age of 50."

And as Curry's tennis shoes squeak across the pavement to skillfully return an opponent's shot in his first-round match Sunday morning, he works to keep that in mind.

"It converts really well, but it's also completely different from tennis," he says. "The very first time you play, you can really have fun. People can just pick it up."

But with the way he and Chao are competing, they might as well be playing tennis.

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