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Pickleball provides fun, helps cause for Allegheny Valley YMCA athletes

Michael Love
| Sunday, July 9, 2017, 7:18 p.m.
Several members of the Allegheny Valley YMCA Pickleball club in Natrona Heights brought home medals from the GAMMA Pickleball Classic  on June 23 to 25 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh. In front, from left are Denise Renard, Cynthia Adams, Nancy Brown and Alexis Duncan. In back are Mike Keryeski, Harold Dicer, Denis Daro, Bob Muntz, Bill Csonka and Don Levine.
Michael Swensen | Tribune-Review
Several members of the Allegheny Valley YMCA Pickleball club in Natrona Heights brought home medals from the GAMMA Pickleball Classic on June 23 to 25 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh. In front, from left are Denise Renard, Cynthia Adams, Nancy Brown and Alexis Duncan. In back are Mike Keryeski, Harold Dicer, Denis Daro, Bob Muntz, Bill Csonka and Don Levine.

Denise Renard was working out in a spin class about a year and a half ago at Allegheny Valley YMCA in Natrona Heights when she noticed a group of people playing an unfamiliar game on the basketball court below.

“I thought it looked pretty cool,” she said.

Renard, 59, a West Leechburg resident, inquired about this sport, and she soon found out what pickleball was all about.

Fast forward to today, and Renard is one of more than 60 pickleball players in a bustling club at Allegheny Valley Y.

“I tried it for the first time, and two weeks later, I bought my racket because I was hooked,” she said.

Pickleball, a sport that fits indoor and outdoor settings, is played at a fast pace and combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping pong.

“It's like table tennis on steroids,” Renard said.

The pickleball group at Allegheny Valley YMCA has grown by word of mouth since its start nearly three years ago.

“A couple of people were playing, and they decided to start the group,” said fellow West Leechburg resident Bill Csonka, 64, a club member and a pickleball ambassador for the Alle-Kiski Valley.

“Everybody else came in and learned as they went along. They wanted to try the sport and see what would happen. They ended up loving it. We have players from their 50s to their 80s. Some still work, but most are retirees. No matter what your age, you can play.”

Two or four players use solid paddles made of wood or composite materials and hit a perforated ball, similar to a wiffle ball, over a net. It shares the dimensions and layout of a badminton court and rules similar to tennis with a few modifications.

The club, which meets Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, has doubles matches going on four courts all the time. To maximize the number of games played during a session, the group plays games to nine instead of the standard 11.

“I picked it up so quickly,” Renard said. “It is so much fun.”

The club sent a group of seven teams to last month's GAMMA Pickleball Classic at David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.

The tournament, billed as a Pennsylvania invitational, attracted players of all ages and skill levels from 17 states — 417 players in all — to compete for a state championship. It was an open tournament, so each organization could send as many people as it wanted.

Of the seven teams from the club, six captured medals: two gold and four bronze.

“The top players were so fast and so quick,” Renard said. “It was amazing just to watch them. You think you are playing at a fast pace, and then you go to the tournament, and you can't compare the two. I wanted to play against people who were better than me. I play better when I rise to the challenge.”

Renard teamed with Natrona Heights resident Cynthia Adams, 67, to take bronze in their women's doubles age and skill group.

“It's one of the fastest growing sports in the country,” Adams said. “It's a very social game. We play with and against different people all the time.”

The club members who participated were grateful for the support of other members who came down and cheered them on during the competition.

“We were so proud of everyone who took part in the tournament,” Csonka said. “Some played in the tournament for the first time and brought home medals. They did very well.”

The Parkinson's Foundation of Western Pennsylvania worked closely with officials of the GAMMA Pickleball Classic. The organizations helped raise money for the cause.

The PFWC stresses that pickleball is solid therapy for those diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

The sport combines hand-eye coordination with simple movement that helps one manage their symptoms and live the best life they can.

Lower Burrell's Dennis Daro, 66, earned gold and bronze medals at the Pickleball Classic, but his first-round match with partner Bob Muntz, 76, a Cheswick resident, in men's doubles went beyond simply winning or losing.

“We walked up to the net to introduce ourselves to our opponents, and you could see a tremor in their hands. They introduced themselves and told us they both have Parkinson's.

“They had a big cheering section, which made signs for them. We took the gold medal, but they beat us that match. I felt good about losing, and how often can you say that? It was so great they were out there playing and playing well despite having this disease.”

Allegheny Valley YMCA club members also play at other pickleball locations throughout the region, and others come to the YMCA in Natrona to play.

The club always is looking for more places to play and more people to join the group.

To find out more about the pickleball club at Allegheny Valley YMCA, email Csonka at kbcsonka@comcast.net.

For additional information on the GAMMA Pickleball Classic and its partnership with the Parkinson's Foundation of Western Pennsylvania, visit pickleballclassic.org.

The USA Pickleball Association is at usapa.org.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at mlove@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mlove_Trib.

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