BY MICHAEL KELLY
SCOTIA — Whap! Whap! Whap!
The sound was constant at the small room at the City View Church where several players were practicing pickleball — a racquet sport with similarities to badminton, tennis and ping-pong. As time progressed on the hot day, the players’ cozy makeshift gymnasium took on the light smell of sweat.
It’s a humble location that belies the presence of some of the region’s and country’s most successful pickleball players at the senior level.
Players started meeting at the church to play about a decade ago, and at least seven of the 40-plus players currently rotating through game sessions at the church are expected to play in the July 10-15 National Senior Games Association’s pickleball tournament at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minnesota.
It will be no surprise if a variety of area pickleball players come home from the Senior Games with a medal from one of the various age divisions. In the past 10 years, the popularity of pickleball has taken off in the Capital Region and New York; Niskayuna’s Peter Briscoe, a 71-year-old player with several state tournament wins to his name, remembered the first state Senior Games involving pickleball as far different from this year’s June gathering with 200-plus players on more than a dozen courts.
“Ten years ago when it started, we had maybe 22 players on three courts,” Briscoe said.
“It’s expanded a lot,” said Glenville’s Ray Raphael, an organizer of local pickleball action who won gold at a previous national Senior Games in men’s doubles.
As the game’s popularity has grown, area players have flocked to high-profile tournaments and routinely come home with medals for top performances. To name a few, Clifton Park’s Roland Calingasan has won medals nearly everywhere he has gone throughout the country; Niskayuna’s Dave Denofio has won a variety of gold medals at previous Senior Games, both at the state and national level; and, Ballston Lake husband-wife team Larry and Cheryl Silverman has won or placed at a variety of state tournaments throughout the Northeast.
The Silvermans are amongst the local group headed to this year’s national Senior Games, which includes Clifton Park’s Carolyn and Dale Norris, Halfmoon’s Sandy Roehner, Charlton’s Bill Purdy, and Schenectady’s Mary Ozarowski.
Recently, the Silvermans won a silver medal in mixed doubles at the first-ever USA Pickleball Association Atlantic Regionals Pickleball Tournament, which was held June 28-29 in Connecticut and drew players from 20 states. At the national Senior Games in Minnesota, the Silvermans, both 60, will compete together in mixed doubles as well as separately in both men’s and women’s doubles.
The couple started playing the sport within the past five years. Cheryl Silverman started before her husband — she retired from her job in the Troy school district a year before he retired from his at Shenendehowa — and both hooked themselves on the game when retirement set in.
“It’s addictive,” Cheryl Silverman said.
“The learning curve is very short, but once you get into it, you realize there’s a lot more to it, which makes it fun,” Larry Silverman said.
Pickleball still exists outside the mainstream sports culture in the United States, and most of the area’s players came to the game through some bit of happenstance rather than deliberation; for example, the Silvermans found out about the game from a neighbor who came to a party after just playing it, while Niskayuna’s Briscoe first learned about the game on a day where his tennis match was rained out and he was looking for something else to do.
Boris and Julia Gisin, a couple from Niskayuna, also originally found out about pickleball while playing tennis. The couple is not yet retired and that limits the number of pickleball tournaments they can attend — “If it fits in our schedule, we play,” Julia Gisin said — but not its success. The Gisins qualified for the national Senior Games with a strong showing at the state tournament, where Julia Gisin won a gold medal in her age division in women’s doubles, Boris Gisin won a silver in men’s doubles along with Niskayuna’s Peter Bojarczuk, and the Gisins — Boris is 55, Julia is 52 — combined to win a silver in mixed doubles.
“And we haven’t divorced after [playing together],” Boris Gisin joked.
Despite qualifying, the Gisins were not able to clear their schedules to be able to make it to Minnesota for the national Senior Games. They should get plenty of opportunities in upcoming years, though, to play at the national tournament — the Gisins, like most players who start up with pickleball, are invested in the sport for the long haul.
“It’s just so much fun,” Julia Gisin said.