A Legend Among Us – Naomi “Nikki” Ryan

A Legend Among Us – Naomi “Nikki” Ryan

“I have done everything I ever wanted to do in my life, and I love playing pickleball!”
Nikki Ryan

Nikki Ryan is a National Treasure.  We call her a “Pickleball Legend”, but, before she started playing pickleball, she had already gained national renown as a tennis player, a sprinter, a beauty queen and a cancer survivor.  She is a glowing, vibrant, engaging 83 year old, and it is my pleasure to share a bit of her story with you on today’s blog. Enjoy!

North Shore Senior Center Awards

National Senior Games – Joyce Jones and Nikki Ryan won Gold!

The full photo caption reads: “Congratulations to Joyce Jones and Nikki Ryan, Northshore Senior Center Pickleball players, who won Gold Medals in Pickleball – 80, Ladies Doubles at the National Senior Games. Joyce also won Gold Medals in the 85 Singles and the 80 Mixed Doubles in Pickleball. The National Senior Games (Olympics) were held in Minneapolis July 3-15, 2015. There were 2015 National Senior Games, results category 80-8400 participants entered in 19 different sports. Way to go, Joyce and Nikki!”

Nikki Ryan has a notebook where she has catalogued all her accomplishments.  Photographs of medals, awards, certificates along with news articles and photos, all organized in 4 categories:  Tennis competition awards, track and field medals for sprinting and race walking, dance competition awards and pickleball tournament awards.  She played with Bjorn Borg during a tennis week on Paradise Island.   She met Jackie Joyner-Kersee at a track event.

bjorn borg

Bjorn Borg, Tennis Pro

1n 1988, she won First Place for a TV Commercial contest in Portland, Oregon.  Barbara Walters was a judge for the competition, and she went up to Barbara and introduced herself and said it was nice that she could be there for her (Barbara’s) daughter’s graduation from modeling school.

In 1995, she won the  Miss Senior Sweetheart of America contest.  She was 63 years old and she entered the contest to see if she could.  She was recovering from an assault, and she did it to overcome her fears.  She couldn’t practice her act ahead of time because the equipment she needed wasn’t available, and she still won!

Also in 1996 at age 64, Nikki won a track and field 100 meter sprint, at Huntsman World Senior games competing against a woman from Germany who was expected to win.  Nikki had arrived late, because of time-zone changes, she had just eaten a big meal, and she was told she had to race soon after arriving.  She won, which is a testament to her tenacity and her ability to play the “wild card” of being an unknown in the competitive field.

Nikki has received over 300 medals and awards for all her accomplishments, and she competes because she likes variety and she just wants to see if she can do it.  Sometimes she competes to meet a short term goal.  Often she competes because it gives her a chance to travel.  One year, as a member of a tennis group from Southern California, she drove a car from Finland, through Scandinavia, all the way to Germany, competing along the way.  She enjoyed staying in people’s homes when she traveled.

Nikki lost her husband at the age of 40.  She was left to raise her three boys alone.  After receiving radiation treatment for two types of cancer in three places, Nikki she bounced back and gained recognition for her tennis talent.  At age 47, She was given a college scholarship for tennis to attend Columbia Basin College.   In the 1st National Senior Olympics held in St. Louis, Missouri, she won gold for the race-walking competition. And later, she race-walking in Australia for the U. S. after only 1 month of training. She danced competitively for 3 years.  She designed all her own dresses.  She won the Superior Ballroom Award in October, 1987. She has participated in the Huntsman Senior World games in Tennis and Pickleball.

As she got older, pickleball became her game. Nikki organized the first pickleball tournament in Washington State.  It was a demonstration tournament, and it was very unorthodox.   There were no ratings yet, so she had to organize the event based on her observation of other players.  She had to organize all the names into a schedule.  After 40 hours of work, she had to start over because one of the competitors died.   She invited officials from the Senior Olympics committee to review the sport for consideration in the Senior Olympics.  It was quite the challenge to organize a tournament. Nikki ran a Seattle tournament for 3 years and then turned it over to Barney and Fran Meyer, and soon after, they started their own pickleball equipment business, Pickleball Stuff.

Recently she was asked to go to Spain to compete in a pickleball tournament, but she didn’t go because she doesn’t travel alone anymore and couldn’t find a travel partner.

Mike Hess Pickleball Tours in Spain

Mike Hess, Pickleball Tour Director in Spain

I asked Nikki the following questions from our Pickleball Pros blog series:

Can you list for us your major wins so we can correctly introduce you to our readers?

1999 1st Arizona Senior Olympics in Arizona – Gold.

2008 Mixed Doubles Washington State Senior Games 75-79, with Ewald Kunstle, Gold

2009 Huntsman World Senior Games, Women’s Doubles 75-79, with Joyce Jones, Gold

2009 Huntsman World Senior Games Women’s Singles 75-79, Gold

2015 National Senior Games in Minneapolis, Women’s Doubles with Joyce Jones, Gold

The highlight of her career was the 2009 Huntsman World Senior games.  I hadn’t played singles before, and just stepped in and won it.

What’s your ”secret sauce”? Any tips for players?

In Doubles, you take what you’ve got as a team and do the best of your ability.  Don’t strive to be picture perfect.  Mental strategy is also key. You make people change their game by giving them something unexpected.  Always think ahead where you are going to serve and how you want to return a serve.  Know your opponent. Try to put the ball where the opponent isn’t. Doubles strategy is to always keep them guessing, keep ‘em running with perfect lob shots to the back line. In doubles, you have to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  You have to be on the same page, so it helps if you are able to play a lot together. There are 3 different ways to win:

  1. Get everything back over the net
  2. Hit shots to overpower
  3. Know where you want the shot to go and place it there

How many hours a week do you play?

I practice about 10 hours a week. I don’t like to play every day now because I need to protect my joints.

What paddle do you play with and why?

The paddle I play with the most is an old prototype of the Blaster Graphite paddle. I like it dead.  It helps with touch. I can control it more. If the paddle is too lively, I tend to over hit with it. I am recently getting used to playing with the Elite Finesse paddle. 

What’s your favorite place to play? Why?

I played pickleball for 15 years at 24-Hour Fitness in Bellevue.  Often I was the only woman playing with a lot of 20 to 40-something guys.  I had a lifetime membership, but when the club moved to Redmond, I didn’t want to pay for a new Super Sport membership. Today, my favorite places to play include the SeaTac Community Center, the Mercer Island Community Center at Mercer View and the Yesler Community Center on Yesler Way in Seattle.  I like to go where my “people” are.

What’s your preference – playing indoor or outdoor?

I like to play indoors.  Indoors you have more options for play. Outdoors your game is limited because of factors like sun, heat and wind.  There are fewer shots that I can use outdoors because it’s harder to control the shots I use indoors.  There’s a harder ball, a harder surface where the ball comes back faster, and I can’t use the touch shots I like to use.  It’s also harder to do my good lob shot.

Nikki always has something good to say about her opponents, and what she says about them also applies to her: “Everyone who plays pickleball in their 80’s is outstanding.”

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