Steamboat Springs Pickleball Tournament attracts players of all ages
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In the inaugural nationally-sanctioned pickleball tournament in Steamboat Springs, a 14-year-old competed against a 73-year-old, disputing the claim the sport is just for older athletes.
A month shy of 74, Bonnie Herter was the oldest competitor at the tournament held at the Tennis Center at Steamboat Springs on Saturday, July 6. Six decades her junior, Brad Fortino was the youngest. Brad and his 18-year-old sister Elise Fortino defeated Herter, a seasoned triathlete, and her partner Gabe Downey to make it to the mixed doubles gold-medal match at the 3.5 level.
“I like how quick it is,” Brad Fortino said.
“And it’s a lot of running, so it’s good fitness, but it’s not like tennis,” Elise Fortino added.
Despite a massive age gap, Elise Fortino and Herter have one big thing in common: they’ve both started pickleball clubs.
In her hometown of Denver, Fortino attended East High School, where she started a club that drew more than 70 people. Meanwhile, Herter and her husband created a pickleball group five years ago in Los Barriles, Baja California Sur, Mexico, where they spend part of the year.
“He came home and said, ‘I’m going to take pickleballs and nets and paddles down to Los Barriles, and we’re gonna start a club,’ and I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ And he did. One year later, in Los Barriles, a small village, we had 120 players.”
“Right now, amazingly, pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the United States,” Tournament Director Don Seigel said. “Right now, there are probably just under 4 million players in the country. It used to be considered the older folks sport. As you can see, it’s far from it. It’s very competitive, aggressive and takes a lot of skill.”
In the 3.5 gold-medal match, the Fortino siblings fell in two games, 11-6 and 11-1 to Justin Pruis and Karly Macon.
The gold-medal match at the 4.0-plus level was more competitive. That game, which featured the most skilled mixed doubles pairs at the tournament, went to three games.
Kellie Banisky, 58, and Chris Montgomery, 49, won the opening frame 10-7. In the second game, 21-year-old Lexi Jensen and local pickleball pro Sean Pummill won 11-8, forcing a third game.
The pair battled back and forth, encouraging cheers from the small but passionate crowd. Using speed and skill, Banisky and Montgomery earned an 11-4 win to take gold.
“I actually used to play racquetball, and they tore down the racquetball courts in Steamboat before I moved back,” Montgomery said. “So, I was looking for a racket sport, and I’m not a tennis player. It’s fun to compete again as an adult. We don’t usually get to compete hard at certain events, so I jumped back into pickleball.”
John and Kim Plotkin used three competitive games to secure gold at the 3.0 level.
The tournament continues at 9 a.m. on Sunday, July 7, with men’s and women’s doubles brackets. While Steamboat has hosted plenty of pickleball tournaments in the past, this one is the first to be sanctioned by the USA Pickleball Association.
A rapidly-growing sport
Led by Siegel, the Steamboat Springs Tournament is part of an inaugural series held by Rocky Mountain Pickleball. The only other tournament this year is held in Denver, but Siegel said next year they plan to add Aspen and Breckenridge to the schedule.
An event sanctioned by the Pickleball Association allowed players under their membership to compete against athletes at a similar playing level. The levels are also known as ratings, with 1.0 being a newcomer and 5.0 being a professional.
“The really cool thing is, literally the first day that you’re out on a court, you can be playing a game,” Siegel said. “Unlike our tennis friends — I love tennis, don’t get me wrong — but this is something on Day 1 you’re going, ‘I’m doing this.’ I’m not gonna say they’re doing it well, but they are playing a game, getting it across the net, having a great time. That initial learning curve is very short.”
Steamboat Springs created a pickleball program in May 2013, since accumulating more than 300 members that play on eight outdoor courts at the Tennis Center.
Herter started playing just five years ago, and she said she hopes to keep playing pickleball for as long as she can.
“What I like about it is the socialness. Everybody is very congenial. It’s fun to be with people that are laughing and having a great time,” Herter said. “I would never have met any of these people if it hadn’t been for pickleball.”
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