Combining Passions through Pickleball

October 23, 2019

By Penny “Effen Smith” Eifrig, GAMMA Contracted Player

Sometimes life serves you lemons. It’s what you do with the return that matters. This is a brief account of how pickleball and the community around it has been helping me make lemonade out of the lemons (or pickles out of the cucumbers?).

The day after the excitement of registering for my first US OPEN Pickleball Championships on Jan 10, 2018, I got a late evening phone call from my doctor. A week earlier, a routine physical indicated that something might be wrong. But I felt young-ish, a mom of two teens, was healthy, athletic, and inspired. Surely they were mistaken.

But then the anxiously anticipated call, and three little words that hit hard. I had invasive lobular carcinoma. It couldn’t be. I had just set myself a goal…I would be turning 50 at the US OPEN, playing a sport I discovered about a year earlier. I never imagined I would so eagerly be entering the second half of my life (I am an optimist), but I was ready to up my pickleball game and test my abilities. I was looking forward to finding a way to increase my opportunities to play and travel and meet other awesome pickleballers, like those at my local YMCA in Central Pennsylvania. Pickleball had started to frame my ideas for what life could look like when my kids left the nest and I would someday reach retirement (like most of my morning dinking crew already had). Then suddenly there was something that threatened to take it all away.

From the first day of the diagnosis, I had the incredible support of all my pickleball pals. They took me out for breakfast the morning before the surgery, a little over a week later. They welcomed me back on the court two weeks after surgery and celebrated each good bit of medical news with me as it came in. When I posted a short note on the Pickleball Forum on Facebook, others echoed the positivity they experienced from the pickleball community when they were going through their own issues. I felt like I was part of a greater good.

Then someone on the forum mentioned another woman talking about cancer and pickleball, Chris Powers. She was asking if there might be interest in a special Women Beyond Cancer retreat that also included pickleball. I was invited to join—again, welcomed and befriended by the greater pickleball community. The long weekend right before the US OPEN was amazing, giving me time to actually realize all that I had just gone through, as I really hadn’t had a chance to process, while enjoying time with other great women who had this shared experience. It gave me time to reflect.

My life for the past decade has been pretty intense…being self-employed as a struggling publisher of children’s books, translating German-English to fund my family’s life and the young business, and raising two bi-cultural girls while splitting our time between Central PA and Berlin, Germany, where we volunteer with refugees (and shared pickleball with them). I love my life: I am passionate about the books I create, about my children, about my friends from all parts of the world. My life is very fulfilled, but can also be quite overwhelming at times. The cancer diagnosis made me stop and think for a minute about whether this pace of life was working well for me.

Then it was time to leave the survivor retreat and drive with Chris Powers to the US OPEN Pickleball Championships in Naples—my first real tournament, with 3 blind date partners. The first match was with a 5.0 guy against great players, and I was a mediocre 3.5. We actually won a game, but lost the match. When it was over, and I looked up and saw Chris coming to give me a hug, and I completely lost it, finally letting out the anguish and joy I had experienced over the past 3 months.

At that moment, I knew the cancer also provided an opportunity. I was ready to embrace all of the good I had in my life and to make tough choices that would enable me to enjoy the here and now, since I realized that that is all we really have.

It provided the impulse to really live life fully: to finally move out of a longtime stagnant relationship (and my US OPEN women’s partner introduced me to my new life partner the next day); to develop a better work balance; to be aware of the toll that helping others can have on you and your family and find balance there too; and ultimately, to find a way to play more pickleball, which truly makes me happy.* I even get to play with my octogenarian parents (my mom is a three-time cancer survivor), who are both avid players!

A year and a half later, the cancer is a distant memory, but the realizations I had from it are still apparent in my life. I have been able to play in tournaments around the USA, as well as in Italy, Ireland, and Germany, and have become part of a great community of others who share my love of pickleball, including my partner on and off the court, Steve Vozza.

My body is stronger than it has been in decades, I get to enjoy a level of competition that I last knew as a teen athlete, and I keep learning from others and improving my game. I feel fortunate to recently have become a Gamma-sponsored player, and I love representing Gamma frequently on the podium. I love that they are supporting breast cancer research with their Ribbon Dart paddle sales.

I may have been given a bag of lemons last year, but I feel like they have sweetened my life with a great new passion, and I cannot wait for all the next adventures ahead!