When a person turns 50, their athletic life isn’t necessarily over.
In fact, there are plenty of opportunities out there to excel.
Ten women representing the Columbia Basin Racquet Club in Richland proved that last month when they won the United States Tennis Association’s League 3.5 Senior National Championships in Indian Wells, Calif.
Captained by Pasco’s Judy Baston, 68, each member of the squad has to be 50 years of age or older.
They play doubles tennis against other squads, usually three matches per competition.
The CBRC team had to win a local qualifying tournament, then win the Pacific Northwest Sectionals in Sunriver, Ore., to earn the trip to nationals.
This year, there were 26,729 women in this country who played senior tennis at the 3.5 skill level. Only 17 teams — 170 women — earned the right to play at nationals.
The CBRC unit was truly a regional squad. Besides Baston, other team members are Debbie Berkowitz of Richland, Cyd Bothum of Hermiston, Elaine Chapman of Richland, Khuelien Dretke of La Grande, Ore., Rebecca Gardner of Hermiston, Loretta Gohd of Kennewick, Jan Hanami of Hermiston, Kathy Mehlenbacher of West Richland, and Judy Stromberg of Richland.
Many of these women have played in nationals before. Baston herself has been to eight national championship tournaments, and she captained a CBRC team in 2009 to a title.
But while titles are nice, most of these athletes will tell you it’s the journey that matters most.
“Why do I like tennis?” asked Baston. “You get exercise, the camaraderie, the competition. It’s just a fun sport, a fun thing to do. If you’re not doing well one day, there is always tomorrow. It does keep you young.”
Chapman, who is 55 and played college basketball at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, finds tennis to be the sport closest to basketball nowadays.
“The thing about tennis is you can start playing right away and have very little skill set and still have fun,” Chapman said. “There is just a huge amount of space to improve. You can take it as far as you want. And it’s a lot easier then running up and down a basketball court.”
National titles don’t just happen. There’s a lot of work involved.
For much of this calendar year, the ladies would meet and practice two to four times a week – including Dretke, who would make the long drive from La Grande.
“All of these ladies, they exercise,” Baston said. “They walk, do yoga and classes at CBRC or their own clubs. They’re active and very fit.”
Baston cited Berkowitz and Chapman as an example.
“In the semifinals, we had to have them win,” Baston said. “They had a three-hour match, with long, long rallies. Talk about having to be fit.”
Chapman said Baston is no slouch herself.
“Judy is not one to toot her own horn,” said Chapman. “We were at sectionals at Sunriver and we had a team member become ill. Judy and Dretke ended up playing together for the first time in the sectional championship. Their victory helped us go to nationals.”
Baston said she tried to prepare some of the newer competitors about nationals.
“I was personally pushing to the girls how hard it is to win there,” she said. “You have to be confident, but not too confident.”
Chapman said Baston’s preparation was a key to the team’s success.
“Judy has a remarkable ability to put people together who will mesh and get along,” said Chapman. “As a captain, you are in essence the equivalent of a baseball manager. You put the lineup together.
“Judy was and is a master at researching online other teams. She’ll use the USTA website. When we were at nationals she was always on the computer, and then she set the lineups. When we walked out on the court she gave us the best chance to win.”
For example, if the other team had someone who had a hard serve, she had to know who on the team could handle hard serves.
Going into Indian Wells last month, the CBRC team was quietly confident in its chances.
“I think the best way to phrase it, is we thought we had a decent chance to win, but we knew the odds would be against us,” said Chapman. “No. 1, we come from an area where there are not a lot of teams. Now contrast that to Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C., or Chicago, where there are literally hundreds of teams competing.”
Still, the CBRC team won four preliminary matches to advance to the semifinals.
On Oct. 14, the local team beat Fairfax, Va., 2-1 in the semifinals match that started at 7:30 a.m.
That put them in the title tilt at 11:30 a.m., on outdoor courts in 100-degree heat.
Undaunted, the CBRC squad took down Walnut Creek, Calif., 2-1 for the championship.
Berkowitz and Bothum played in all six matches in the tournament. But it was truly a team effort.
And now it’s over.
“Our team has probably dissolved at this point,” Baston said. “Once you go to nationals, the USTA makes you break the squad up to prevent monopolies. Or you could move up to 4.0.”
It was a great experience, said Baston.
“It’s a privilege to compete with these women,” she said.
The idea is to keep moving, to keep playing. To show that your athletic life doesn’t end after you turn 50.
“I will continue to play for as long as I can,” said Baston.
“I’ll play tennis as long as my body holds up and somebody is willing to have me on their team,” she said.