Last week I said I was featuring a ‘much loved’ pickleballer in this weeks player profile. Many of my readers guessed whom I was talking about…..That’s because this lady is a ‘people person’ who makes friends wherever she goes….Including last year when she was playing in Kelowna, B.C….Friendly and outgoing, my interviewee is also a ‘top’ player with medals in many high level events.
So, to get in the right mood, grab yourself a good cup of coffee and some dark chocolate….Let’s settle in for a chat with:
GIGI LEMASTER IN HER OWN WORDS
- 1. If I’m correct Gigi, you were born in Belgium….Is that where you grew up as well?
— Yes, born and raised outside of Antwerp, Belgium. I came to the US in 1988, never intending to stay, but I met my husband John LeMaster at a Chamber of Commerce meeting while visiting Sante Fe, New Mexico. It was ‘love at first sight’ and the rest is history
- 2. How many languages do you speak?
— My native language is Flemish (Dutch), my second language is French, and once in awhile my English is not bad either:-) I read, write and understand Spanish and German, but having a conversation in those languages has become difficult.
- 3. What were your childhood interests? Were you always sports minded?
— Growing up in Europe, school equals education–no sports–we only had one hour a week of PE. No emphasis is put on sports. Sports in Belgium were organized thru city leagues so you had to really commit to spending time before and/or after school to excel. I was a kid who loved the outdoors. Climbing trees, swimming in the local canals, riding bicycles, I would never spend anytime indoors unless I was in the classroom. I would get up at 6pm, spend an hour in the pool swimming laps, go to school, come back, spend another hour training. Swim meets were during the weekend. Same with volleyball. My team won the Belgium Championship and yet my parents never saw me play one game. My parents were not too concerned with sports or involved because it wasn’t education, so the onus was on me, and, me alone, to succeed. I think it really helped me later on to have the drive to become a great pickleball player.
- 4. How old were you when you came to live in the US?
— I was 22 when I came to visit the US. I was fascinated by the Wild West:-) I used to devour book after book about the Cowboys and Indians, the wide open spaces and free spirit of the West.
- 5. Who introduced you to pickleball?
— I first saw, actually, literally ”heard” this game with the funny name while walking in our community. The noise attracted me and they were playing on a basketball court with a temporary net. I walked up to the court and asked if I could try it. The local Ambassadors–Mike & Patsy Pagliarulo– welcomed me with open arms. They handed me a paddle, a USAPA membership application, and life has never been the same again! Early on my love for the game got me involved in all aspects of the game, such as: running tournaments, refereeing and volunteering in any way to help the sport grow.
- 6. How long did it take you to get to the 5.0 level? Did you have a coach?
— It took me two and a half years to get to the 5.0 level and be successful. I had several people help me along the journey to the top. At first, when I picked up the paddle, I had no idea how to hold it, what a backhand was,…many will argue I still don’t:-) Although, there actually is a shot called the Belgium Backhand, and believe me, it ain’t pretty but it works for me. I actually scored the last, winning point of the Nationals with my signature shot:-)
Let me get back to your question. I didn’t know anything about paddle sports, or proper techniques. I would attend the beginners classes. Later, when I got a little better, I joined the ladders with mostly men playing. Well, anybody that knows me at all, is not surprised to hear that I wanted to be on top of the ladder:-) But how was I ever going to beat the guys, right?
So, off I went to Surprise city, where a 3.5 womens group practiced every Friday morning. I would show up, stand outside the fence, watching, not being invited to join because I just wasn’t good enough. So, I would drive the 30 minutes home, making up my mind I would come back the next week. This went on for four weeks until finally, the guy teaching the group, the one and only Wayne Muggli, said to me, ”Come here, I will show you how to dink!” ….And boy, did I ever learn the soft game! I later became known as the ‘Queen of the dink’!
My ”bread and butter” shot–the third shot drop–I owe to my friend Stewart Helfrich, who would string a cord about 2-3 feet above the net–he made me attempt to drop that ball in between the net and the string. I spent many a frustrated hour on the courts, but I was driven enough to stick with it:)
While playing games, he would give me 20% of the court, until I earned 30%. Then 40% until he told me one day I had outgrown him. He was a true teacher–he wanted me to be better than him….Thank you Stewart!
I was willing to listen and take away bits of information from lots of different people along the way,… as long as I felt I could incorporate those tips into my game. The best thing I ever did was not give up, or stop believing, that my soft game would be enough….Many a time I would find myself without a partner, or some of my teachers/coaches or players would say that I would never be a top player because I couldn’t hit hard or couldn’t handle the hard shots….I’m glad I stuck to my game and I am grateful for the partners that believed in my game!
- 7. You live in Surprise AZ, Steve Wong’s home town. Was he an early influence in your game?
— He definitely helped me become a stronger player. He would joke about me being such a scrappy player and believe me–he tried very hard to teach me the proper techniques–but it obviously was a lost cause:-) Although we spent many hours on the courts drilling and playing, our playing styles are totally opposite and I never subscribed to his hard hitting ways.
But–more than being an influence in my game–we worked together on many projects such as the fundraiser tournaments that ultimately funded the conversion of the tennis courts to what we now proudly refer to as the Surprise courts. We also ran the 2012 Nationals together. We were founding members of the Surprise Pickleball Association (SPA) and did clinics together as well.
- 8. Can you explain to my Canadian readers why so many top pickleballers like to play at Surprise’s famous ‘City Courts’?
— It’s the atmosphere of all inclusiveness, good competitive games, mixing it up with different partners,…the camraderie. It’s also a sense of pride for those of us who worked very hard to get those courts converted from 2 dilapidated old tennis courts to 8 beautiful dedicated pickleball courts!
- 9. What was the first major PB tournament you competed in, and who did you play with?
— Ha, ha, ha, good question…I had not been playing for more than 2 months when a gal from my local club asked me to play in this tournament ”right around the corner” from where I lived. I, foolishly and not knowing any better, said yes. Turned out it was the 2010 Nationals Tournament in Festival. I didn’t know what hit me, but it did give me a taste of what was to come. My next tournament, 2 months later, I signed up for the Grand Canyon State Games…I won 3 gold medals!
This is where I met Steve Wong for the first time. Funny story,…he was supposed to play with a 5.0 gal in the mixed doubles,…she couldn’t make it and asked me if I would want to play with this ”young kid” from Seattle? Not knowing who this kid was, I agreed to take her place. Mind you….all I knew was how to dink…..Here’s this kid running all over the court, covering for me, running vertically up the fence trying to keep the ball in play, all the while telling me to put the ball away! I looked at him confused and said: ”What does that mean, putting the ball away?!”….It was so funny, but we got the gold!…Great times all around. It’s been such a great ride and I love sharing these stories in the hope that other players–not gifted with tennis backgrounds or great physical athleticism–will be able to identify with my story–make up their minds about becoming a better player, and go for it!
- 10. You’ve had a productive playing partnership with El Condor (Enrique Ruiz), winning lots of medals, including a gold medal in 2014 in open mixed doubles. Your ‘games’ obviously match up well together…I’m curious about something….What is the protocol?….How do players get teamed up?….For instance, who first suggested that you and Enrique should try playing together?
— It’s a great story,….I love to share it with people. I met Enrique at the 2012 Nationals when I presented him with a gold medal. He complimented me on the design of the medal (which I designed), as well as how much my game had improved…..Yep, he’s a smooth talker! Lol…
I found myself without a mixed doubles partner in early 2013 and he happened to email me at that time asking me if I’d consider playing with him sometime. I answered that I had just become a free agent:-)
Our first time ever on the courts we took the gold in the Inaugural Tournament of Champions 2013 as well as the Dennis Forbes Memorial Tournament. Unfortunately, that year we had both committed to playing with other mixed partners for Nationals, so we had to wait until the next year before taking the 2014 Nationals Mixed Doubles Open title.
As to ‘how players hook up’? I always compare it to a courtship:-),…You see or hear about a player who might be a good match, you ask to team up, or, you’re being asked–preferably you could get some practice games in before the tournament–and, off you go!….It’s a bit different at the top level. Most players commit in advance…sometimes up to a year.
- 11. I’ve heard that Enrique is a nice guy….How would you describe his personality?
— This might be a question better answered by his lovely wife June:-)….As a partner he is very calm, always encouraging and, in my opinion, one of the few great mixed doubles partners that can, and will, adjust his game to compliment his partner’s game…. I’ve enjoyed playing with him.
- 12. In last years’ Canadian West Nationals in Kelowna, you got to spend some time with your fans up here in B.C. Some of our Victoria PB ladies got some good pictures with Mona Burnett, Luba Zhekhovskaya, and you. Did you enjoy meeting your Canuck fans from Victoria?
— Loved it! When my friends Bryan & Glenda Jackson told me about all their club’s efforts to have a tournament, I wanted to come and support the event. I got to meet a lot of great people. Everybody was so welcoming. It was such a fantastic tournament–well run and the venue is so beautiful–that I can’t wait to come back this July.
Sarah Ansboury and I are doing a Pickleball retreat at Lake Okanagan Resort preceding the tournament. We look forward to seeing a lot of the local players there.
- 13. As well as the Nationals, the Tournament of Champions, the Grand Canyon State Games and the other pro level events, there is also the LeMaster-Davison Classic that you direct along with Dee Davison. In this years’ event, I hear that you will be playing doubles with Jennifer Lucore. What’s it going to be like to have her on ‘your’ side of the net for a change?
— I have played with Jennifer once before. It will be fun and we should do well together.
- 14. I saw recently that you celebrated your 25th anniversary with your husband John. Does he play PB, and have you and John been doing some work with Pickleball Belgium?
— My husband and I started playing Pickleball at the same time. He still plays a social game, referees at all of the tournaments I attend, and is my biggest supporter.
Since my time is spent doing all things related to pickleball–such as lessons, clinics, running tournaments, teaching skill drills at my local club, teaching high school kids the game, refereeing, etc-we made a pact when going to Belgium not to ‘eat and breathe’ Pickleball–to spend that time with each other and my family. However, last year Kassandra Bourgeois–a very talented young lady living in Belgium contacted me about starting Pickleball in Belgium. While in Belgium, this past September, we visited with her family a few times and mixed it up with the local players. We showed some drills and gave some tips. Kassandra has done such a great job getting Pickleball started in Belgium.
- 15. You had some exciting times with a young pickleball star last year. Will you tell my readers who are new to pickleball who Sarah Ansboury is?
— Yes, Sarah and I experienced success from the ‘get go’. Our first tournament together–and every one since–we’ve taken the gold! I can share with you who Sarah Ansboury is as a partner. I will leave it up to Sarah to tell your readers more about herself:-)
Although she comes from a tennis background, she is, in my opinion, the only female player who embraced the soft game from the start–which is one of the reasons why she immediately rose to the top. Most tennis players don’t incorporate the soft game until they experience defeat by the hands of a slower, softer game. Sarah is mentally strong and just an overall great, supportive partner.
- 16. The most prestigious medal for women’s pickleball has to be ‘gold’ in open doubles play at the US Nationals. In the qualifying rounds in last years’ Nationals, you and Sarah Ansboury lost two games out of three playing against Corrine Carr and Simone Jardim. You and Sarah were sent to the losers bracket. After that you and Sarah won a string of games and found yourselves in the finals! Your opponents to be were Corrine Carr and Simone Jardim,….the very same ladies that had beaten you earlier that day! Sarah and you were coming from the losers bracket, you would have to win 2 out of 3, 11 pointers, plus a final 15 point game to claim the gold medal…..How was your confidence level at that point?
— By the time we made it thru the losers bracket (quite easily), our confidence level was pretty high. We were not leaving Nationals without that title:-)… Our first time meeting with them we made some errors…I did not adjust my game fast enough, the wind played a bit of a role, and, overall, I didn’t play patiently. We knew what we needed to change in our strategy–we implemented and executed it after we won the first match 2 out of 3. We were very confident going into the tie breaker.
- 17. In that deciding game of women’s doubles at the Nationals last year, Sarah and you were leading 14-11 and it was your turn to serve. You hit the ball to Corrine Carr,….she returned the serve to you,…you knocked it back to Corrine, and then you and she got into a bit of a ‘dink fest’, finally you spied an opening and knocked it past Simone Jardim. You’d won!…You’d scored the 15th point! Can you describe in words what that moment felt like for you?
— The picture of Sarah and I embracing spoke volumes! A lot of emotions,…. the culmination of lots of hard work–hopes and dreams came true with that last shot. To put the ball away with my signature shot, ”the Belgian Backhand”, was just icing on the cake. Corinne and Simone were tough competitors. We all fought hard for every point. Many people made the comment that the level of play for women’s doubles was higher than ever before, and, I agree. To come out on top was the best feeling ever. To do it with Sarah by my side was even better!
- 18. Last question Gigi,….I’ve heard you talk about playing pickleball in your mind. I do something similar when I’m working on creative writing. I think visualization techniques can help a person in their daily lives….What is your ‘motto’ for having success in life’s games?
— For pickleball I say: ”Don’t play hard, play smart!”
— My life’s motto is, and always has been, to love with all of your heart! Everything you do and experience,….everybody you meet!
- Your stories made me laugh….. Thanks, Gigi!!….You inspired me to get a new motto. It’s is going to be ‘think smarter not harder’, and ‘learn the Belgium Backhand’!
- Please send your comments on this player profile to my email address: firstname.lastname@example.org …I will forward your messages to Gigi LeMaster.
— Here is that link to the dramatic last game of the womens open doubles at last years US Nationals:
2015.11.13 – LeMaster, Gigi- Ansboury, Sarah vs Carr, Corrine-Jardim, Simone -OMD Final (last game only)
-Note- The Pickleball Retreat that Gigi mentioned in her interview precedes the Canada West Nationals in Kelowna. The date for the Nationals is July 8-11th, 2016.
The retreat is July 3-7 at La Casa Resort on Lake Okanagan (about 35 minute from Kelowna). The daily clinic will be taught by current USA doubles champion Gigi LeMaster and Sarah Ansboury. Both Gigi and Sarah will be staying with the participants and sharing time both on and off the court.
For more details go to: www.pickleballgo.com
Under the Gun in Florida
Excerpts from the Naples Daily News – Feb 14th, 2016
Collier County crews are scrambling to get ready to host the US Open Pickleball Championships in April….The event is expected to draw about 5,000 spectators to East Naples Community Park as top players from around the world compete in this inaugural event…The county needs to build 12 permanent courts and 6 temporary ones for the event….The work, which will cost $250,000, will start next week….The type of surface the county is using–called Deco Turf–takes about a month to settle, leaving just a few weeks to start the work in time to make the tournament….The pricey surface is the same used in Flushing Meadows for the US Open Tennis Championships and for tennis events in the last two Olympics…The surface gives a little more bounce than asphalt, and is more forgiving on a players knees, joint, ankles…
Terry Graham (founder of the US Open Pickleball Championships) says,…”This will be the biggest and best pickleball facility in the world, not just because there will be so many courts, but because of how they’re surfaced.”
….The county is hoping to get in on the ground floor of the increasingly popular sport and is betting that demand for pickleball courts and events like the US Open will continue to grow.
- Doug- It looks like Deco Turf is the way to go for for new court construction. I think it can also be used on resurfacing projects. Mayhaps we could ‘turf’ some of our dilapidated Victoria courts and get them Deco-turf-itizedized! I’m putting there web site address for any one interested in learning more about the process: www.decoturf.com
What Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Adam Levine, and Enrique Ruiz Have in Common
When I’m playing with a beginner PB player, I sometimes use my non-dominant hand (in my case my left). This helps even the play, and gives the new player a chance to win. It may also give a side benefit to me….There are some indicators that training to become more ambidextrous may improve creative and abstract thinking….However, the finding are controversial….I would be interested in hearing opinions from the ‘ambi-dex’ people out there….Will training both hands turn me into another Einstein…..or, just a better pickleballer?….I’m not too crazy about the idea of turning into another Adam Levine…
Cucumber Vine – Spring Thought Prunings in Real and Abstract Forms
– It seems that many PB communities are facing the challenge posed by Pickleball’s growing popularity. Courts are crowded and municipal budgets are tight. When I hear of how much money Naples, Fl had to spend to get their new courts I ‘despair’……but, then I remember to put things in perspective…..The more pickle-people there are in our town, the more chance there is that someone will have the right ideas and political connections to get our pickle park project happening.
– In the CC archive edition Apr 26, 2015 I did a travel article–a pickleball safari–starting in Kelowna, going down to Bend, OR, over to Corvalis, and eventually getting back to Victoria via the Coho ferry from Port Angeles. I’m thinking I should probably do another travel safari article, but this time confine it to ‘stay and play’ places on Vancouver Island. I think an article like that might be popular with American PB friends,…. Canada is having a 30% off sale for someone with Yankee dollars….
– I am going to attempt to do something different. I am going to try to get input from some of the players at the first big PB event of the year…..The excitement is building in Maricopa county, and what is coming is no mirage….tune in next week to the good popping sonic vibrations, ’til then…
Thanks for the game,