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    Spreading Positivity On And Off The Pickleball Court

    An Interview With Lee Whitwell

    In the swiftly evolving world of professional pickleball, Lee Whitwell stands out not just for her prowess on the court but also for her infectious enthusiasm and profound commitment to fostering a culture of positivity. As she embarks on her inaugural year as a senior pro, Lee’s pickleball journey continues transcending the boundaries of the sport to touch people’s lives far and wide. 

    We sat down with Lee to discuss her career so far, exploring the motivations that fuel her passion for the game and her desire to inspire others. Lee’s vision extends beyond the pickleball court, as she is on a mission to leave her mark on the world through her uplifting messages. 

    Her goal? Empower individuals by celebrating their unique journeys, embracing their struggles, and finding joy in their achievements. Lee’s story is a testament to the power of positivity, the strength of the human spirit, and the profound impact one person can have on the lives of many.

    leland orfield

    By Leland Orfield – 03/22/2024

    I understand that you grew up playing tennis before picking up pickleball. Tell me a little bit about your background with racket sports and when you first decided it was time for pickleball.

    Lee: Yeah, I started playing tennis in the late 1900s. It’s been a hot minute. Then, I came to college in the States on a tennis and volleyball scholarship, and ended up playing pro tennis for a little bit. I then retired in San Diego and got into coaching college tennis. 

    I did my masters and thought I wanted to work in corporate America, and said, “probably not” and went into the resort world. So I really enjoyed the resort world where I started out as a tennis instructor, head teaching pro to junior director of tennis to tennis director, tennis director of spa fitness, and kind of taking over departments. That was a lot of fun. 

    Somewhere in there, I ended up playing beach tennis when I was in San Diego, which is a really fun sport that really didn’t take off to the level that I would have liked it to in the United States; it’s really big in Europe and South America. So I had a short pro career in that, and then moved to Bend, Oregon, to simplify our life. It was very much just to take a step back from the madness of the chaos. And well, that was just a big fat lie, because I started out teaching at a tennis club, and ended up being the director of that tennis club, and then I did the Athletic Club in Bend.

    I started playing pickleball in Bend, and my life took on a world of its own. So, yeah, I’m very, very fortunate in my path. When I stopped playing pro tennis and was on the teaching side of things, everything sort of fell into place in an interesting way.

    You’ve been a pro player for about six years now. What has that journey been like for you, and what motivates you to continue to pursue pickleball at the highest level?

    Lee: I feel really lucky. I never thought in my mid-40s I’d have another professional career in sports. It almost is an oxymoron; it doesn’t make sense. But, I was lucky to come into pickleball at the stages it was at, and I got to go from open pickleball to pro pickleball and see prize money come into the sport, which was really, really fun. 

    Now, do I wish I was 20 to 30 years younger and coming into the sport right now at the professional level? 100%, Because there’s way more money in this sport now than there was when I first started playing. When I first started, everybody who came into pickleball, it was their secondary, tertiary sport. Fast forward to 2023, and it’s like, well, what’s happening? I’m looking at it going, “I’m really, really much older than everybody. Their bodies are recovering much faster, and it’s not so much the morning sessions, it’s more as the tournament progresses throughout the day.

    This is my first year of playing senior pro. I’m enjoying being the young buck on campus instead of grandma, as some of the youngsters call me affectionately. I’m still involved in pro careers, as I’m coaching the next-gen team. I’m still very much involved at the pro level, but get to participate at the senior pro level and am having a ton of success there. So, that’s a lot of fun too.

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    It's usually all smiles from Lee whenever she's on the pickleball court.

    As you just mentioned, this is your first year playing at the Champions Pro level on the APP Tour. What has that experience been like so far? How does it compare to the pro level?

    Lee: I mean, it’s an adjustment, it’s very different. When I first started playing pro, you had some sort of, you could call them routine matches until you got to your quarters, and you’re like, “Okay, that’s when I really have to knuckle down.” Now, there’s no such thing as a routine match in pro anymore. Your first-round matches are all solid. So that was the big change in pro.

    Now in senior pro, you look at the first round, you’re like, “Okay, I’ve got it, that’s a routine match. And then we got to pay attention in this one.” So, it’s sort of where pro was five or six years ago, on the depth side. The pro pool is super deep, but on the senior pro level, it’s not as deep.

    But, I’m predicting that as the prize pool increases on the senior side, we’re going to see a lot more players coming into the senior space. We’re going to see a lot more players who have had very successful careers or sports careers in their own right, and who are now 46, 47, 48, 49, and their kids are out of the house or are grown up, and they’re looking at it going, “I can do this.” So, I’m hoping I get a year or two under my belt before these young bucks start coming in and knocking on my door as well.

    In the last couple of years, we’ve seen astronomical growth within pickleball. What things have you noticed about the game’s evolution since you first started playing?

    Lee: I mean, you look at the evolution of the game, and I’ll be the first person to say that pro pickleball could die tomorrow and pickleball would still be the fastest-growing sport in the United States, right? Because there’s such a huge mass at the recreational level, you know, then there’s a smaller chunk at the tournament level, and then the pro level is even smaller.

    When I first started, the paddles were smooth, and pedal technology hadn’t evolved to the way it has now. We’re also seeing the growth of the sport at every level. And so paddle technology is now allowing people with a racquet sports background to come into the sport with a lot more success because now, the grit on the paddle allows them to hit tops, and they can hit slices, they can manipulate the ball 50 different ways. Before, it was more hammer-and-nail pickleball.

    So right now, I feel like we’re in this sort of phase of people trying to stay ahead of the curve, and there are no barriers or guardrails around what can be done because we’re still at it. Let’s face it: we’re still in the growth phase. We’re very lucky to be in this space.

    Beyond playing in and commentating pro pickleball tournaments, you’re also a content creator and coach. Tell me about your passion for creating comedic and motivational content and teaching new players.

    Lee: At the very heart of everything that I like to do is that I want to make people laugh and smile and make them feel good. I’m very, very lucky that I get to hit a plastic ball for a living, and I also understand that the pro tournaments sit on top of an amateur tournament, and the only reason we have a platform is because of the amateurs, right? So it’s important for me to bring the amateurs and my fans on a ride with me, whether in a tournament or online; it’s a way for me to connect.

    So being funny, creating comedic content, making stuff that’s relatable, and also being very approachable at a tournament is my way of saying thank you. Thank you for giving me this platform and coming along on this journey with me. But yeah, at the end of the day, I love to make people laugh. Maya Angelou said it best – people will always remember how you make them feel. And if I’m the reason that I can put a smile on their face, then I can go to bed happy.

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    I know you’re hoping to do some more long-form motivational speaking along the lines of the TedTalk approach. You’ve also got this revamped website. What are your current goals for that project and your brand moving forward?

    Lee: I want to get into the speaking space because everyone has a story, and we all have baggage, right? Some of us have a carry-on, some have checked, and some are chartering multiple flights to put all our baggage in. We all have a story to tell, and for me, it was important to be very, very human and very, very candid. 

    If I can help somebody with what I’ve been through and then give them my perspective on things, then maybe that’s another alley for me to really connect to people and help make people feel good or give them a little bit of hope when sometimes their world around them is super bleak.

    I have trigeminal neuralgia. I’ve had six brain surgeries; it’s a debilitating pain. If you eat ice cream really fast, that’s my best day. That’s my normal day – the rest get worse from there. But, having gone through a lot of it and having been through the ups and downs and the pain and figuring out, you know, “what am I going to do?” It was very much the thought of this isn’t going to define me. I’m not going to let it cripple me, and I’m not going to be beholden to so many drugs that are altering me that I can’t function. I need to look at it through a very different lens, and the lens I’m choosing to look through it with his humor. Positivity and humor.

    You know, I’d be lying if I said I’m very good at that, and successful 100% of the time, because I’m not. There are days that I can’t get out of bed; there are days I can’t see straight. But, if you can find the humor in some of the small moments, it kind of helps you get through that hump. It makes that light at the end of the tunnel shine just a little bit brighter.

    Whatever problems we have weighing us down, no matter what they are, the minute they come to the front of your head, they’re going to cloud everything and that’s all you’re going to see. We’ve got to move that mess out of it so that you can have a clear ahead and be able to function.

    Finally, as you continue to build your career, what do you hope your legacy in the pickleball community will be? Are there any contributions or changes you hope to make to the sport of pickleball?

    Lee: I want to be known as somebody who helped grow the sport and that cared about the sport beyond the professional field. Somebody who cared about the grassroots, cared about the community, the inner city. Growing the game in every corner – growing the game internationally. 

    You know, I definitely hope to have that, but more importantly, I want to be known as somebody who saw people and cared about people. That my fans mattered to me, and everyone mattered to me, and I took the time out of my day to just say “hi,” no matter if I just came off a loss or not, right?

    I just want to make people feel good. If I can make them laugh and smile and help them hit a pickleball, then that’s not a bad legacy to have.

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