It was a mild morning in May, but what morning in May wouldn’t be mild at 8:00am? The sky was clear and I had decided to take the windiest back roads to Fredericksburg. The roads twisted so much that at some points I thought I was going to drive off the road. All that twisting really didn’t help the nervous feeling I was trying to ignore as every second on the road meant we were another second closer to the Stafford-Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania Cinco de Mayo Pickleball Tournament.
I had signed up with my doubles partner, Dewayne, in the 3.0 skill level division. (Doubles is when your teammate is the same gender as you and typically your opponents are too). We were both relatively new to tournaments – in fact, this was my second tournament ever. We had both played in one earlier this year – he placed silver in 3.0 mixed doubles and I didn’t place at all. To give you an idea of where we are in terms of skill level, 2.5 and 3.0 are typically considered entry level or beginner level for tournaments. The highest level currently recognized by the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) is 4.0 though this tournament had a 4.5+ level (this also doesn’t include pro level which is an independent level on its own).
As we pulled up to the Cosner Park tennis courts, my husband quickly pointed out, “There isn’t anywhere to sit and there isn’t a lot of shade.” We were already ill prepared without chairs, blankets, or even hats. I wondered what else I wasn’t prepared for.
Dewayne ran up and greeted us in his uniquely cheerful way. It was like he wasn’t nervous at all. He casually threw down a picnic blanket and offered an extra chair for us. “Dewayne was prepared,” I thought sipping my venti caramel macchiato – knowing full well I wasn’t going to finish it.
It wasn’t long before our team was called onto the courts. It might’ve been 9:30am, but the sun was already beating down on the tennis courts and the heat just reflected right back at you from the court’s smooth surface. You were either getting baked or burnt from two directions – sunscreen was only going to delay the inevitable.
We greeted our first opponents and the game began. I could hear my heart beating in my ears. I had practiced at the Community Center nearly every day since the last tournament, but my nerves didn’t seem to care. I just had to trust that my body knew what to do until I could mentally calm down.
The opponent served. I missed. An ace.
I never miss a return of serve.
My body didn’t know what to do.
If we were going to have any chance at this, I needed to be wholly present. I had to get it together.
And then we got a side out. And then a point. And then another point. And the next thing I remember, we won. Did we play the full two out of three games? I think that we did. We must’ve lost the second round. Did we? I don’t remember. But I do remember the heat. And the bright sunlight bouncing off of everything.
And I remember winning our first match. Okay, I think we can do this.
Again, we were called. Again, we greeted our opponents – who had also won their first match. I remember noticing how accurate our opponents were. How their placement was better than mine. How their dinks were lower than mine. How my hands weren’t doing what I told them to do. How way too many of my balls flew out.
I remember the first two games being close.
I remember losing the third game.
…I remember losing the third game.
“Sorry Dewayne, I just can’t seem to get it together today.” I lamented. He reassured me, as Dewayne does. We still had one more chance.
The loser’s bracket was one match to 15. Not the best two of three to 11. One match to 15. One chance.
As we walked off the courts, I looked at the 3.0 bracket. I noticed that since the number of teams for the 3.0 mens doubles bracket was so low, we were already in a medal round. Even if we lost, we would leave with bronze.
And somehow that felt like a relief. It was like, “Hey, even if you mess this up, you’re still coming home with something. You’re starting somewhere and this is a good place as any to start.”
It was a good place to start. It was also a good place to keep going. Dewayne and I were in sync that match. Nothing went by us and nothing flew out. Point after point after point until we realized we had won 15-2.
We were still in this.
“Dewayne, look,” I pointed to the brackets, “We’re in the finals. We’re either leaving with silver or gold today. This is amazing!”
Our final match. Another best two out of three. We looked up and it was the team that had beat us in our second match. “So we meet again,” one of them laughed in a welcoming way.
“It’s an honor to get another chance to play you guys again. This is our last match. Let’s make it a good one.”
Referees were used for gold medal matches. They mainly watched for line faults – illegal moves that automatically counted against you.
And so we began, “Zero, zero, two,” I served the ball. I returned it. A pop to my chest – this was my chance, this was my shot. I punched that ball with everything I had. A line drive down the middle of the court. A point!
“Kitchen!” The referee yelled.
“You were on the kitchen line. Side out.”
I had already moved my foot by then so I had no way to check. How could I have made such a simple mistake? I just had to be careful.
Another pop in the air.
I jumped to catch it and slam it down – something I had practiced for weeks. Was it in? Out? I don’t remember. I remember coming crashing down and my calves seizing up like somebody had grabbed them as tightly as they could.
“Oh no, I’m really dehydrated,” I thought as I limped away to stretch my calves, “This is bad.”
“Ten seconds!” The refereed jeered at me. There’s no way I’d be ready in ten seconds. I looked at Dewayne.
“Time out,” our opponents called. I looked over at them. “Take two minutes to stretch them out,” he said to me.
That was the kindness and the fair play that pickleball was known for. I was struggling to hold my own and they were dominating us, and they still had the courtesy to use their time out for us. A time out I forgot we even had.
In the end, I remember our last chance flying out and it was over. But we got silver and we met great people – and we had a really good time.
As I sat down on the picnic blanket in the shade, I played with the silver medal in my hands. I kept thinking to myself, 12 year old queer me who played Legend of Zelda for hours on end would never believe me if I told him about this day. I had tasted a gold medal match and I wanted another shot. Guess I’m addicted.
“We’re getting gold next time, Dewayne.”
“You got it, partner.”