Heart and Soul - Georgia Billger, 77, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
Georgia Billger has a competitive heart. This is evident by watching the senior athlete’s passion on the pickleball court, and from a history of participating in multiple sports going back to her high school and college days in Pennsylvania. At one point, she was the seventh-ranked tennis player in the mid-Atlantic states and selected as a member of the Junior Wightman Cup team, the women’s counterpart to the Junior Davis Cup.
Talking to other athletes, it’s clear she also has a caring heart. “Georgia is one of the most giving and gifted women I know,” says Susan Brooker, the pickleball coordinator for the Delaware Senior Olympics who often plays her. “She truly believes in giving back, in other words, paying it forward long before the saying ever came into being.” Georgia helped start a local pickleball club, and then served as a coordinator for three years after the Delaware state games added it to their sport offerings. Many of the 300+ pickleballers now participating were recruited and coached by her. In her ongoing medal march, she has traveled to other states to help others qualify for the National Senior Games in doubles play.
Georgia also has a strong heart, notwithstanding a family history of heart disease and a close call that resulted in a quadruple bypass at the age of 70. As the following conversation relates, her overall excellent physical health fooled the doctors at first, and helped her rehab and get back on the court. She was also sidelined for abdominal surgery three years later. Once again, her active body helped her bounce back to continue to play and to encourage others to get moving to enjoy better quality of life.
Because of her positive example while pursuing excellence, the Delaware Senior Olympics presented Georgia Billger with its Charlie Marten Memorial Award in 2013, an honor bestowed on athletes who persevere, pursue a healthy lifestyle and provide an inspiration to others. That sounds an awful lot like the criteria used for our own Personal Best recognition program, and prompted us to share her story beyond “The First State.” Read on to learn more about her passion for sports, and how she has passed that passion on to her family and others.
Let’s start at the beginning. Were you always sports-minded?
Yes, I have always done something. I grew up about 30 miles northeast of Philadelphia. My mother was Pennsylvania Dutch, and my grandmother spoke it. Joe and I were married in 1961, and we came down to Delaware in 1962. We first moved to Lewes, about five miles from Rehoboth Beach, where we currently live.
In high school I played field hockey, basketball and tennis. I played more tournaments in tennis, and was ranked seventh in the middle Atlantic states. As a senior I did qualify to go to Nationals in the 18 and under doubles bracket with my sister. I also was on the Junior Wightman Cup team. The men have the Davis Cup, and the women have the Wightman Cup, and they have junior teams.
I attended Ursinus College in Collegeville, near Pottstown, Pennsylvania. I played the same sports, and we had a badminton team so I joined that too. I trained to be a teacher but didn’t do it much. When we moved I helped set up the Rehoboth Cooperative, the first nursery school around here, and I taught there for a couple of years. But with four children, I just ran my own nursery school at home. [Laugh] I was also a substitute teacher but only did it part time. I really wanted to be a stay-at-home mother.
Tennis sounds like it was your main sport. Did you keep playing?
I thought I would, but at first there was only one court in our town, and there were cracks and grass growing through it. So I sorta gave up on that idea and hung up my racket for awhile. I went back to it and taught tennis to the kids as they were growing up. My two sons got tennis scholarships to college. I still bike and swim and ski in winter for exercise, but pickleball is my main thing now.
How did you get involved in Senior Games?
When my grandson played on a travel baseball team, I met Marion Lisehora, who also had a grandson playing on the same team. She ran the volleyball program for the Delaware Senior Olympics, and she kinda nagged me to join a volleyball team every time I saw her. So I decided I would go there to shut her up. [Laugh] I went just to watch, because I didn’t think I could play competitively anymore. Well, she wasn’t the kind of person who let you just watch, so I started playing with her team. That was how I started in the Senior Olympics, probably 16 years ago. I also played softball and basketball, and I did play tennis one year too before I started playing pickleball when I was 68.
A few years earlier, I saw a pickleball demonstration at the Nationals in Pittsburgh , and you could sign a petition to make it part of the National Senior Games. I didn’t know anything about it and I let it go for about five years. Then, my friend Willa Jones told me, “We have to start pickleball here!” So we went to the Rehoboth YMCA and got it started there, and that’s when I learned it. We started with about 12 people.
We’re told you volunteered to be the coordinator when the Delaware games added pickleball.
I was, for three years, along with June Fortney. We did it without a computer because it was just starting and did not have big numbers. We now have close to 300 playing pickleball.
Pickleballers are passionate for the sport, especially those who have played tennis.
I’ve heard people describe it as a combination of ping pong, badminton and tennis. If you ask me, I call it “tennis for old people.”[Laugh] The court is smaller, but there’s so much the same with tennis so it was a perfect fit for me. The strokes were the same, and I just fell right into it. People who play tennis pick it up real quick. I play it all the time, usually five or six times a week. Maybe too much! [Laugh] It becomes addictive.
When I’m at pickleball, there’s grey haired and white haired people there but I never think of them as old. They all look like big kids running around the court. I can feel young again doing this. I see other people my age, and they’re barely getting around. I’m just thankful I can still move.
The practice paid off, because you won the gold medal in women’s singles in your age group in the 2015 National Senior Games. We hear you are a tough out and play in state games too.
This year, I got a gold in women’s doubles in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware. I was glad to help my pickleball friends to qualify for Nationals. I also won gold in singles in Pennsylvania and Delaware, and got a silver in mixed doubles here with my sometime partner and friend Bill Smallbrook.
My friend June was in the 60-64 age group so I played down when we first started playing tournaments. I still do that with others too. I love the competition at that level.
I play mixed doubles with my younger brother Skip Alexander,(pictured with Georgia to the right at the Delaware Senior Olympics) and will be playing with him at Nationals next June. I twisted my knee one day before this year’s Delaware Senior Olympics, and Skip had a bad hip which made it difficult for him to move one yard to the left or to the right. We played anyway and took the best team to three games before dropping down to the losers bracket.
I’ve even played with my son Richard after he turned 50. We won a gold one year in the Delaware games and won some local tournaments. Our losses were probably due to the fact that I was playing people at least 20 years younger, but it was fun. He’s moved out to Tucson since, and they play a lot of pickleball out there, so I’m sure he plans to continue.
So things were going really well, and then you had some setbacks. Tell us about them.
I had some surgery when I was 25 for an ectopic pregnancy. Otherwise, I was in pretty good health until I turned 70 and started to have problems with heart disease. Because I was so healthy, the doctors thought I had acid reflux at first. But it got to the point that I would have to quit a pickleball game after five points because I was out of breath.
They did a heart catheterization and found I had 100 percent blockage in two arteries, and 80 percent blockage in two others. The doctors told me that because I was in such good physical condition, I didn’t have a heart attack because the blood found other routes to the heart. I was fortunate. They wouldn’t let me leave the hospital because I had to have quadruple bypass surgery right away.
What was funny was that they told me I was the healthiest person in the hospital other than the blockages. I fooled the doctors, who told me, "Your numbers are picture perfect - blood pressure and blood sugar are normal and cholesterol has kept under 200 with statins.” So they didn’t suspect heart disease until the catheterization.
The bypass surgery went very well, and I decided I would do everything the doctors told me to get my life back. The only thing they let me do before going to cardiac rehab at six weeks was to walk. I walked inside the house if was raining, and I kept extending the distance. By the time I got to rehab I was practically racing around the track. [Laugh] I really believe in rehab because it gave me confidence. They measure everything, and push you to do more and more and more. When I finished they said I could go back to doing anything I wanted. I went back to volleyball and pickleball right away. People were amazed, but I told them I was given permission to do it.
That was an ordeal to overcome. But you had another challenge after that, right?
About three years later. I was going to the gym at the hospital because I liked going there. My insurance had run out, but I paid for it anyway. Anyway, I was walking down the hall and was gripped with a horrible pain in my stomach. I went home and it didn’t get any better. My husband Joe insisted on taking me to the emergency room. They found I had a blockage in my intestines and admitted me to the hospital. It turned out that the scar tissue from my surgery when I was 25 had wrapped around my intestine and wouldn’t let anything pass through. Because they caught it early, they snipped it off and didn’t have to take any of my intestines. But I had to stay there for ten days, and after I got out I had an infection that took me back to square one. So the recovery took eight or nine weeks before I was allowed to be active again.
But I’m a person who has a lot of faith, and I just decided that these were just minor bumps in the road and that I would stay positive.
Delaware Senior Olympics agrees about your positivity, and says you’ve inspired many others.
I tell people I meet to just get off the couch and start moving. I always talk about how good pickleball is for your health. I teach beginners at our regular practice. I tell them to come 30 minutes early and I’d work with them to learn. Some people come out and think it isn’t that strenuous, and then they’re huffing and puffing. I put them in doubles so they only have to cover half of the court, and I tell them, “You’ll be shocked at how fast you get in shape.”
There’s one man who lost 20 pounds and his blood pressure came down. He’s off his medications and feels better than he has in years. And Susan Brooker, who is now our Delaware pickleball coordinator, lost 40 pounds. Then there’s Marion Lisehora, who’s been involved for many more years than I have. She’s 84 and has exercised all of her life. She doesn’t have a doctor, and doesn’t even know what her cholesterol number is. She’s in perfect health.
Well, where would you be if you hadn’t been this active?
I would really be in trouble with my heart. My brother needed open heart surgery when he was 59, and my sister had to have stents put in around the same age, so our family has a history of heart disease. My husband just read an article that said exercise is even more important than diet for heart patients.
But diet is still important for you, isn’t it?
I don’t watch my diet as far as calories go. But I try to eat better, with more greens, making smoothies and cutting down on fat. I don’t worry about calories, because I burn them up playing pickleball! [Laugh] It’s the truth.
What’s your impressions of the National Senior Games?
I’ve been to four of them- Pittsburgh , Louisville , Cleveland  and Minneapolis .
I love the competition, that’s the first thing I’ll say. And when you go back year after year and recognize people you haven’t seen for two years, and everyone is so friendly, well it just makes for a pleasant week. It’s competitive, but they are honest and don’t fight over points. It’s just good fun and it’s something to look forward to. It’s like a vacation.
In fact, we have a group of us from Delaware that are talking about renting a house in Birmingham for the 2017 National Senior Games because we have so many people going!