From Ping Pong to Pickleball

A Senior Olympian’s competitive spirit leads her to master and medal in a new sport

Jan. 11, 2018

As the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang loom, cold-weather athletes the world over are hard at work training and qualifying to participate.

In Tennessee, another group of Olympians is preparing for competition as well.

Since 1981, the Tennessee Senior Olympics have been offering adults over 50 the chance to compete in 19 different sports. Swimming, running, basketball, tennis and the mighty pickleball are among the sports on offer, with gold, silver and bronze medals doled out to the winners. State finals are held every two years, with the senior games themselves following.

The next national games will be in 2019 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and these people are ready.

Among the competitors is Karen Ribble, a pickleball triple threat (singles, doubles and mixed doubles) whose childhood years as a competitive table tennis player have stood her in good stead for the game.

“I grew up playing ping pong, and even as an adult would meet a good friend at the YMCA for games,” Ribble says. “When our YMCA got a pickleball set, few people really knew what it was or how to play. Then some new members who had competed in the senior games in New York rallied enthusiasm and began teaching more members how to play. The sport gained momentum as we all started teaching each other.”

Ribble, 55, was glad to find a sport that would accommodate her busy schedule.

A registered nurse by training, the Springfield resident has been working as a hair braider at renaissance festivals around the country for the past 30 years.

“I put myself through school braiding hair and never really gave it up,” she says. “I grew up in Texas and started braiding there, but then wound up going all over with it. I still do.”

senior olympians playing pickleball player
senior olympian pickleball player karen ribble

Muscle memory comes in handy

The games have allowed her to parlay her childhood love of table tennis into an equally challenging adult game. Pickleball has been described by some as “huge table tennis,” she says, and her skills came back in no time.

“I really had no idea what I was walking into when I first got involved with the Tennessee Senior Olympics,” she says. “They made it very easy to join once I’d talked to some people and got online. My friend and I decided to throw our hats in
the ring and see what happened. We were pleasantly surprised at how we fared and have been hooked ever since.”

Much as in table tennis, there’s plenty of diving and lunging in pickleball.

Ribble says anyone who thinks the senior games are a bunch of old codgers moaning over shuffleboard should take a look at the sport — or any of the others being played.

“People will joke and say that it would be pretty funny if they got beat at something by an 80-year-old. I tell them that if/when it happens, it’s not that funny,” she says, laughing.

“We play in 5-year age groups, so if you’re up against someone older, that means he or she is playing down in age. That means they may very possibly kick your butt.”

Competition aside, she says the games provide an opportunity for staying active and building a new set of friends.

“It’s a wonderful group of people that challenge you to keep moving, to stay young and have fun,” she says.

“I have met some wonderful, health-minded and athletic people. It’s been very inspiring.”

senior olympian pickleball player karen ribble
senior olympian pickleball player karen ribble
Photos by Patrick Sheehan