2024 Florida Senior Games, December, 2-15, Florida's Sports Coast/Pasco County

Florida Senior Games Jumped on the Pickleball Bandwagon Early
The FSG daily wrapup, courtesy of SilverSneakers®

Unbeknownst to many, the Florida Senior Games was an early arrival to the current Pickleball craze sweeping the nation and the world.

In the 2003 Florida Senior Games, held in The Villages, Pickleball made its debut, to a very localized crowd of 200 players. Through the Games tenure in The Villages through 2005, the local athletes continued to enjoy the convenience of playing in their own backyard, as the total topped 300.

Upon relocating to Lee County in 2006, the participation rate dipped and has been growing each year since.

The 2023 Florida Senior Games, presented by Humana, completed the second day of four days of Pickleball at the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis and Wellness Center with advanced skill levels of Men’s and Women’s Doubles Thursday.

The 32nd Annual Games features a record number of Pickleball athletes with 482 players on the courts over the four days of competition. In 21 years of Florida Senior Games Pickleball, over 5,000 athletes have registered to compete in the game batting the yellow ball with holes back and forth.

With the age groups divided into skill levels in 2023, there’s something for the beginner to the professional level players. The not so experienced Men’s and Women’s Doubles teams were on the courts Wednesday and the top-ranked teams played Thursday.

“I really liked playing here today,” said Michelle Heimann, of Winter Haven Wednesday. “When I played in my qualifier, I was against 4.0 players and higher. I got beat pretty bad.”

On the courts Thursday were the likes of Greg Goodson, of Tampa, who plays on the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) Tour. He teamed with Matt Gear in the Men’s Doubles 50-54 age group.

Besides his appearance in Zephyrhills today, the APP Tour has brought Goodson all over the U.S. for competition. He rattled off locales of Alabama, California, North and South Carolina, Texas, Utah and major U.S. cities, Atlanta and Chicago.

While on a European cruise, Goodson and his wife sought out Pickleball locations in Cadiz, Spain. While visiting his daughter in London, he found a place to play Pickleball.

“In Spain, it was a renovated warehouse, turned into indoor pickleball courts,” he said. “In London, we played in a badminton facility lined for Pickleball. It wasn’t advanced as here in the U.S. but they’re finding ways to play.”

Whether the players on the court were in the lower or higher skill levels, the yellow ball with holes has been batted back and forth in Zephyrhills with gusto.

There was no more gusto displayed on the court than the final match of the combined 55-59/60-64 Women’s Doubles Finals Match, 4.5+ level, on Court 5, between the teams of Jana Spano, from The Villages, and Erica Gonzalez, of Kissimmee (pictured above), and Palm Coast’s Sylvia Whitehouse and Cass Rollins, from Lady Lake.

The four ladies on Court 5 today are among the top players in the State for their age group. Gonzalez, Spano and Whitehouse have numerous gold medal winning performances in the Florida Senior Games and National Senior Games.

“All four of them are in the top 20 in Florida for their age group,” said Florida Senior Games Sport Director, Andy Rubenstein, of Coral Springs.

After dropping the first game, 11-7, Gonzalez and Spano rebounded to win the next two games, 11-0 and 13-11, forcing a final championship match to 15. In the final, Gonzalez and Spano took an early lead they never relinquished on the way to a 15-7 victory.

“After losing the first game, I became completely focused on the ball,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what led to the 11-0 win in the second game.”

Since Gonzales and Spano played in the 55-59 age group and Whitehouse and Rollins were in the 60-64 age group, both teams earned well-deserved gold medals.

The match featured the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Both teams were faced with making split second decisions between themselves. They hit shots to completely handcuff their opponents. They hit shots where their opponents weren’t. Shots were made taking full swings and shots were made with a soft touch. Shouts of joy and disappointment came from both sides of the net.

A spectator during the match commented, “I don’t know much about Pickleball, but I feel like I’m watching Game 7 of the World Series.”

Following the game ending shot, both sets of teammates hugged one another.

As Whitehouse walked off the court, she turned and said, “Nice game ladies.”

Gonzalez and Spano embraced in an extended hug before leaving the court.

When being presented with medals, Whitehouse insisted the age groups not be separated for photos and the whole group of medalists stick together.

“Jana and I played against those two today, but we’ve been partners with them in the past,” Gonzalez said after the match. “We’re all one big Pickleball family.”

Because of its partnership with the sport including a name deriving from a cucumber soaked in vinegar, the Florida Senior Games has played a part in creating this big Pickleball family for athletes age 50 and over in the State of Florida.

Visit www.floridaseniorgames.com/results for complete results from the Games.

Three more days remain in the 2023 Florida Senior Games through Sunday, December 10. The remaining schedule of the 32nd Annual Florida Senior Games follows.

Friday, December 8
Horseshoes – Clearwater Horseshoe Club; 10:00 a.m. start time
Pickleball (Mixed Doubles) – Sarah Vande Berg Tennis and Wellness Center, Zephyrhills; 8:00 a.m. start time
Track and Field, Javelin Throw – Cypress Creek High School; 5:00 p.m. start time
Power Walk, 5000 meter – Cypress Creek High School; 7:00 p.m. start time
Race Walk, 5000 meter – Cypress Creek High School; 7:00 p.m. start time

Saturday, December 9
5K Road Race – Wesley Chapel District Park; 8:00 a.m. start time
Pickleball (M/W Singles) – Sarah Vande Berg Tennis and Wellness Center, Zephyrhills; 8:00 a.m. start time
Track and Field (Field Events, except Javelin) – Cypress Creek High School; 8:00 a.m. start time
Badminton – St. Leo University Health and Fitness Center; 9:00 a.m. start time
Powerlifting – Land O’Lakes Recreation Center; 9:00 a.m. start time
Shuffleboard (M/W Singles) – Zephyrhills Shuffleboard Club; 9:00 a.m. start time
FootGolf – Silver Dollar Golf Course, Odessa; 2:00 p.m. start time

Sunday, December 10
Badminton – St. Leo University Health and Fitness Center; 9:00 a.m. start time
Power Walk (1500 meter) – Cypress Creek High School, Lutz; 9:00 a.m.
Race Walk (1500 meter) – Cypress Creek High School, Lutz; 9:00 a.m.
Shuffleboard – Zephyrhills Shuffleboard Club; 9:00 a.m.
Track and Field (Running Events) – Cypress Creek High School, Lutz; 9:00 a.m.

The 2023 Florida Senior Games is an annual program of the Florida Sports Foundation, the official sports promotion and development organization of the State of Florida, presented in conjunction with Florida’s Sports Coast and SilverSneakers®.