These women never got to be ath­letes. Then came the Florida Se­nior Games.

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY CAITLIN JOHN­STON Times Staff Writer

For many women who at­tended school be­fore Ti­tle IX be­came law in 1972, there were no ath­letic out­lets. Now they’re get­ting an­other chance at ath­letic suc­cess thanks to the Florida Se­nior Games.

CLEAR­WA­TER — Jimmi Sy­monds, 68, stared down the court at her op­po­nent, slowly turn­ing the orange ball in her hand as she pre­pared to serve.

Bar­bara Reis, 66, had trounced Sy­monds in the last game. But now the two were tied in the fi­nal game of their pick­le­ball match. (For the unini­ti­ated, think of ten­nis on a smaller court with a hard type of wif­fle ball).

Sy­monds fired off her serve and Reis flubbed the re­turn, send­ing the ball wide and out of bounds.

“No, no, no,” Reis said un­der her breath, slap­ping the pad­dle against her leg in frus­tra­tion.

The match was part of this week’s 2018 Florida Se­nior Games, which brought out nearly 2,600 se­nior ath­letes rang­ing in age from 50 to 97 to com­pete across Pinel­las County.

About 350 of them will

play pick­le­ball, a fast-grow­ing, hugely pop­u­lar sport in se­nior com­mu­ni­ties. The smaller court, low net and rel­a­tively quick games make it more ac­ces­si­ble for older ath­letes.

For some of the men, the tour­na­ment is a chance to chan­nel the com­pet­i­tive edge they honed on bas­ket­ball courts and base­ball di­a­monds as young ath­letes years ago.

But for many of the fe­male ath­letes here, the Florida Se­nior Games and sim­i­lar tour­na­ments of­fer a com­pet­i­tive out­let they didn’t have ac­cess to grow­ing up.

These women are part of the pre-Ti­tle IX era. Born in the 1930s through ’60s, they didn’t en­joy the ben­e­fits the mon­u­men­tal gen­der-eq­uity law laid out for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing their daugh­ters and grand­daugh­ters, when it passed in 1972.

Take Tina Rosen­quist, 65. The avid pick­le­ball player loved sports as a young girl, in­clud­ing play­ing foot­ball with her broth­ers. But when it came time for school sign-ups, she and other girls were left with few op­tions. Ten­nis and track were avail­able, but not much else.

“I en­joyed all sports, but I was sup­posed to be in the kitchen learn­ing to cook,” Rosen­quist said. “That was our gen­er­a­tion.”

Kathy Vollmer’s true pas­sion was bas­ket­ball. But Vollmer, 66, didn’t have the chance to play in school. If she and other girls wanted to shoot hoops, they had to scrounge to­gether their own matchups.

“We had to do our own thing and form our own games,” Vollmer said of girls at the time. “There was noth­ing of­fi­cial. Ti­tle IX came about shortly af­ter that.”

The law changed ev­ery­thing for fe­male ath­letes. That’s why Rosen­quist teared up when her own daugh­ter joined a girls hockey team in Min­nesota so many years later. Her daugh­ter didn’t quite un­der­stand the emo­tion, but to Rosen­quist, it was a sign that things re­ally had changed for the next gen­er­a­tion.

“We women have worked so hard for equal gen­der in sports,” Rosen­quist said. “We set the stage for you.”

Now, those same women are clinch­ing cham­pi­onships of their own through op­por­tu­ni­ties like the se­nior games.

For many, sports like pick­le­ball are a way to stay ac­tive and also keep an ac­tive so­cial life af­ter re­tire­ment. Friend­ships form on courts and span state lines. But de­spite how cour­te­ous the play is — “nice shot” and “good one” echo fre­quently in the gym — the com­pe­ti­tion is real.

“In our heads we’re 35, and our bod­ies just scream at us,” Vollmer said.

Reis, who lost her first match against Sy­monds, climbed her way up through the loser’s bracket (dubbed by some as the op­por­tu­nity bracket). She made the fi­nals af­ter four straight wins. Three hours in, her legs started to cramp. She lost the next point and slapped the pad­dle twice against her thigh.

“Stupid,” she snapped at her­self. “Stupid play.”

Out­wardly, Reis was one of the most com­pet­i­tive ath­letes on the court. She was quick to judge her play and vent her frus­tra­tion. But she also was able to set­tles those nerves and get back in each game, calm­ing her play and fo­cus­ing on the next point.

She went on to win the gold medal.

Reis, who lives in Braden­ton, hap­pens to be one of the few women who had the op­por­tu­nity to play team sports in high school and col­lege.

She at­tended an all-girls Catholic school in Buf­falo that fielded teams against other girls schools in the re­gion.

“That was re­ally good for me,” Reis said. “I was lucky.”

Reis joined the soft­ball team, play­ing fast-pitch through high school and col­lege. By that point, fe­male col­le­giate sports were get­ting trac­tion but many pro­grams were still in their in­fancy.

“Ev­ery­thing was just get­ting go­ing,” Reis said. “There were no schol­ar­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties for us. But we’d go on bus trips and eat out, and I thought that was a big deal.”

In the years af­ter, she pitched for a team in a Cana­dian-Amer­i­can league. The would travel to Toronto and other big cities. Women’s soft­ball was much more pop­u­lar in Canada than in the states, she said.

She stopped pitch­ing in her 30s, but kept ac­tive with other sports over the years. Rac­quet­ball was one of her fa­vorites, un­til she found pick­le­ball through an ad for free classes at the lo­cal li­brary. She quickly took to the sport, which she found to be kinder on her body.

She com­petes fre­quently, en­ter­ing tour­na­ments all over the state.

Just last week, she won the AAU Na­tional Out­door Pick­le­ball Cham­pi­onship in Punta Gorda.

She hopes her body al­lows her to keep com­pet­ing for as long as she can.

“You fig­ure ev­ery­one else is slow­ing down, too,” she said. “Hope­fully it’s at the same pace.”

Braden­ton’s Bar­bara Reis, 66, re­turns a shot dur­ing pick­le­ball play at the Ross Nor­ton Recre­ation Cen­ter in Clear­wa­ter on Wed­nes­day. The match was part of the 2018 Florida Se­nior Games, which brought out ath­letes from 50 to 97.

Jimmi Sy­monds, 68, of East Palatka, re­turns the ball dur­ing her match. For many women, the Florida Se­nior Games of­fer a com­pet­i­tive out­let they didn’t have ac­cess to grow­ing up.

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