Solivita resident Erica Gonzalez is on here way to Albuquerque, N.M. to try to keep up a streak of success at the National Senior Games.
Gonzalez, 54, who has won gold medals each year in the game of pickleball at the Florida Senior Games since 2015, looks to defend gold medals won at the 2017 games (the Nationals are held every other year) in women’s doubles and mixed doubles.
A triple gold medalist at the 2018 Florida Senior Games — she added singles play to her repertoire — Gonzalez said she hopes to repeat that feat at next week’s Nationals know that she knows what to expect at that level.
“We may come across players and teams we’ve never seen before,” she said this week before heading out west. There’s no expectations, I just want to play my very best.”
Gonzalez will play mixed doubles with partner Dale Guess from Virginia, with whom she won gold at Nationals in 2017. Her new ladies partner is Jackie Ebner from Rochester, New York; longtime partner Sylvia Whitehouse has moved on to the 55-59 age bracket.
Gonzalez has only been playing pickleball for the over six years she’s lived in Florida after moving from Connecticut. A lifelong tennis player who played collegiately at Ohio Northern University and in USTA events over her 40-year career, she hadn’t heard of the game until they offered lessons at Solivita.
Where tennis is a “racquet game”, pickleball is a “paddle game” played with something more resembling a table tennis paddle. The ball a plastic polymer ball that looks and feels like a whiffleball, and the game is played on a 20x44 foot court. The lighter ball and smaller dimensions put a premium on precision rather than power, as players may not volley (play the ball without a bounce) in the “kitchen”, the seven feet closest to the net on each side.
She said she was quick to translate to the game, and doesn’t even play regular tennis anymore.
“I’m a singular person so I tend to focus on one thing,” said Gonzalez, who now plays a handful of pro circuit events a year around the state. “You can always tell the players who try to do both when they play. They think they can hit a pickleball harder. The game takes a lot of soft skills, dinking, soft shots that land 2-3 feet over net in order to win at this level.”
The National Games now routinely attract over 10,000 competitors and 20,000 spectators, with oldest competitors being over 100 years old. Nearly 1,200 playaers are registered for pickleball in Albuquerque. More than 40 teams are in the 50-54 mixed doubles bracket, which will be held Saturday.
“It’s a huge draw. The team we played for the finals in Birmingham (in 2017) is going to be there,” Gonzalez said. “I’m really looking forward to the wonderful energy of the event as well as competing against folks from across the country. I’m also looking forward to some downtime for taking in the sights.”
Since the women’s mixed draw is Monday and singles event (“Singles is the closest thing to tennis,” she said) is Wednesday, she’ll have down time in between to see the area, as well as root for other, olders players she knows around the state, who serve as inspirations for her in her “new” sport.
“I’m inspired by the older folks,” she said. “I want to be playing as long as I can and live up to the pace they’re setting for me.”