“Pickleball Saved My Life”
Dick Johnson, 78, Boise, Idaho
When pickleball players see Dick Johnson’s name on their match bracket, they know they are in for a challenge. That’s because Dick’s resume includes twice medaling in all seven recognized national and world championships in one year and racking up close to 200 medals -mostly gold- in these majors and 90 sanctioned tournaments across the country. These include Senior Games in his native Idaho, five other states, and the National Senior Games. Impressive enough, but even more so since he has done it all in only five years since first picking up a paddle.
Like many other seniors entering this rapidly-growing sport, Dick’s learning curve was quicker because he had played tennis extensively since the 8th grade, and pickleball offers many similarities to the point that some describe it as “tennis on steroids.” Dick has won state tennis championships in each decade except one. and is one of few in the world to have played in sanctioned U.S. Opens in both tennis and pickleball. Not bad for a guy who was teased as the smallest and youngest kid in his neighborhood while growing up.
Equally impressive is that despite back fusion surgery in 1978, Dick stayed on the court to teach three of his daughters, and all became state high school tennis champions. They also competed very well in major father-daughter events, and the family enjoyed the thrill of a lifetime when he and daughter Shelly qualified to play in the 1986 U.S. Open in Flushing Meadow.
However, the surgery only partially helped and persisting back pain forced him to quit tennis 20 years ago. Global travel in demanding top management positions, plus church, family and civic commitments caused Dick to become out of shape and overweight, and he knew he was in big trouble when severe Type 2 diabetes struck. He found a treatment program that helped him manage diet, lose weight and avoid insulin shots. But, Dick still wondered how he would stay motivated and avoid exercise boredom without playing a sport competitively.
While undergoing treatment Dick discovered “the sport with a silly name” that features a smaller court and underhand serves, which allowed him to manage pain and play. When he won his first tournament appearance at the Idaho Senior Games at age 73, Dick knew a path was opened. In fact, he believes this new pickleball passion literally saved his life. He’s gratefully given back as a founding member of the Super Seniors International Pickleball Association, which hosted 40 tournaments around the globe last year. And, he has served on a committee working on construction of a new $600,000 pickleball facility at Hobble Creek in Boise, one capable of hosting tournaments.
In our conversation with Dick, you will find he is guided by Mormon religious principles that form his bedrock and have helped him to overcome many challenges and achieve many successes. He even turned down academic and tennis scholarships and left college to go on his first Church mission for two years. He loved to serve others and deeply feels the experience prepared him to succeed and be happier in all aspects of his life.
Beyond his many accomplishments in academics, business, sports, government, and civic life, Dick Johnson testifies that his greatest successes and blessings have been devotion to God and church, his marriage of 54 years that has produced 4 children,15 grandchildren and (so far) 3 great-grand children, and his dedication to serving others. Considered with his determination to stay active, we’d say that makes for a great example of how to pursue your Personal Best!
Dick, you’ve had an incredible run in only five years of playing senior pickleball. But you had a jump start with tennis, right?
Yes. I won the state high school championship for three straight years, and after two years at Boise State - it was called Boise Junior College then - I was graduating first in the school of business and was offered tennis and academic scholarships elsewhere. But, I didn’t accept them and, instead chose to go on my first mission for the Mormon Church when I was 20. I was told those scholarships wouldn’t be there for me when I returned, and that’s indeed what happened. I also had to put my Air National Guard service on hold. Despite the so-called ‘sacrifice’ it was wonderful to return home in two years knowing it really wasn’t a sacrifice. Instead, I felt in debt to the Lord for the personal growth and happiness that serving others provides.
I went to BYU in Provo when I returned. I hadn’t played in a couple of years, but I challenged the number two guy on the tennis team and beat him. That got me a really good shot at making the team. But, soon after, I got the call to be a counselor in a Bishopric, so I gave up tennis again during my college years.
I started back playing tennis after I graduated from BYU, and won state championships in most decades thereafter. I continued to play, even after major back fusion surgery in 1978, mostly because I was teaching my three daughters to play. To toughen up their skills I regularly set up doubles matches to play against some of the best men in the state. They all became state high school champions. Together, we won state father-daughter titles seven times, and got to the big regional finals once with each. My second daughter, Shelly, and I won the regionals which won us a trip to play the nationals at Flushing Meadow at the U.S. Open in 1986. We played our matches in the morning and then had seats for the whole ten days to watch the pro matches. We played on the same courts, dressed in the same locker rooms as the pros, and personally met many of them. It was one of the biggest prizes in amateur sports…and the thrill of a lifetime for the whole family!
But after about ten more years of playing, the back pain was so bad I quit and didn’t do much of anything after that until I discovered this pickleball thing and entered the Idaho Senior Games about five years ago.
Wow, you created a family legacy with your tennis skills. Before moving forward, tell us how you found your athletic passion growing up.
We weren’t wealthy - we lived in a small apartment on the top floor and my bed was a cot pulled out of the attic each night and set up in the tiny kitchen. My dad rode a bike to work until I was seven. I was a skinny, small kid and the youngest in the neighborhood. I only weighed 125 pounds when I got married at 24! When I had to get glasses in the 6th grade I left them at home because I was so embarrassed to wear them, especially in front of the bigger kids in sports.
But I was naturally athletic and had a strong desire to work hard at sports to keep up with the older kids. My dad and mom had to drag me in each night from the dirt court and hoop in our driveway. I loved sports from Day One and played baseball, basketball, football, you name it. I didn’t start tennis until the 8th grade. I ran back and forth between baseball games and tennis matches that were held in the same season.
Sounds like you had some tough times as a kid.
Yes. Though popular and a high achiever in academics, sports, and student government, I was also the ‘Mormon kid’ who wouldn’t join in the smoking, drinking, partying, and even some drugs that all started around the 7th grade. When I was around ten, some of the older kids in the neighborhood would tie me up in the branches of a tree that was taller than the houses. Pretty scary. There was other stuff because there was some jealousy that my sports ability was enabling me to catch up to the older kids.
The hurt feelings were many as I became more and more left out of parties and other activities. I’ll never forget one of those experiences that left me confused and hurt. It occurred when I was the baseball team captain and one of the star players. In the championship game, I scored the winning run and my throw to home cut off the other team’s chance to beat us. I was surrounded by cheers and slaps on the back. But, then, I learned afterwards that I was again not invited to a party later that evening. They were some of my best friends.
But, it made me stronger and helped drive the development of my abilities.
So pickleball was easier on your back so you could continue to play sports?
Pickleball saved my life literally because I had gotten way out of shape and developed a serious Type 2 Diabetes situation. We went down to Arizona and found a medical treatment that I followed rigorously. After several months, I dropped my A1C blood level from a horrific 12, when it was first diagnosed, down to a controllable 6.0. I lost 40 pounds, was able to put off insulin, and concurrently found this fun game with a silly name. Tennis players pick it up pretty quickly, and it was a real motivation for me to find a sport I could do and really love.
My first tournament was at the Idaho Senior Games where I played and won at tennis, pickleball, and table tennis. Because of the back pain, I threw the old tennis racquet back into the closet until the next year. But, I kept playing pickleball because you serve underhand which is not as big a strain on the back.
It’s also a smaller footprint to cover than a tennis court.
Right. I play two to three times a week and I’d play every day but for the back pain. For most years since, I’ve again drug the old tennis racquet out for a few days and won events in the Senior Games. I’ve also won at table tennis. But, pickleball and the Senior Games has been the greatest blessing for me because I play all year round.
You know, pickleball is the fastest growing sport in North America, it’s just exploding. Some call it ‘tennis on steroids.’ Among the older and now younger people entering the game you find Olympians, NCAA champions, Davis Cuppers, tennis pros, people who played at Wimbledon…the competition keeps getting tougher and tougher.
When you mention former Wimbledon players, you must be referring to Alice Tym.
Yes. You know, in her day she was 13th in the world in tennis, won titles on 5 continents, and coached the Yale and Tennessee women’s tennis teams for decades. Alice has partnered with me many times in pickleball. We’ve won mixed doubles in the Huntsman World Senior Games and took silvers in close final matches at the US Open and National Senior Games. We’ve won Senior Games in Connecticut, Idaho, Nevada and Utah, and at other tourneys elsewhere. We’ll be going back to the Huntsman this year.
Alice also plays badminton, table tennis, and some field events. She’s just great. I greatly admire how well she handles her own injuries and the aches and pains most super seniors have, and for her fun, gracious personality and great service to the sport.
Will Alice be your partner at The National Senior Games in Albuquerque next year?
No, she’s not, the rascal. [Laugh] She told me she’s going to play down in a lower age group.
You’ve had your share of aches and pains, too.
Persevering through pain and the challenges of life is important for success and happiness, and especially critical for success in sports.
I played competitive tennis for many years with severe back pain before my major back fusion operation. For a long while, I refused to risk the danger of the operation and just continued playing - and winning - despite terrific pain down my leg and losing the feeling in my toes. It wasn’t until the leg started to atrophy that I OK’d the operation. The fusion turned out only partially successful, but I still played another ten years of competitive tennis, primarily to keep myself in tune to teach my daughters and then another ten years afterwards with lesser, but still tough pain.
Now, I’m still dealing with the back pain, and two years ago I had knee surgery. I’ve had a couple of hernia operations, and I pulled an Achilles tendon while playing the gold medal match in pickleball singles at last year’s USAPA Nationals, which broke my heart. But, I won the singles against the same guy several months later at the US Open, the biggest pickleball tournament in the world! I’m dealing with sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and the other aches and pains of a 78-year-old. And, you know, once diabetic you are always diabetic. I still work really hard to follow a disciplined diet and exercise to keep it under control.
All of those things are painful and have slowed me down. But I tell people, ‘You’re going to have injuries and things happen to you. If you give up and become a couch potato, you’re not going to live as long. If you continue to do things physically, you’re going to be more healthy, have more longevity, and you’re going to be more happy and have more fun all along the way.’
Does it inspire you to see all of the other active people at Senior Games?
That’s what I love about it, with all the emphasis on health and being among those world class athletes and hearing their testimonials. To be able to compete at this high level against these kinds of athletes is what keeps me going. It gets my blood flowing and is keeping me healthy along the way.
It’s a thrill to see the Olympic flame lit, marching with all the others in the Parade of Athletes, socializing in the Athletes’ Village - wow. It’s just a fantastic spectacle of joy and peace and brotherhood. We absolutely love it, it’s a highlight of our lives. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose at National Senior Games, it’s about staying healthy. That’s a great philosophy for you to have. If I’m dragging and have to play on one leg I’m still gonna go!
The National Senior Games is among the biggest pickleball championships around. There’s also the USAPA Nationals, the Huntsman World Games the State Games of America, and the SSIPA World Championships, the International Indoors, and the U.S. Open. I’m blessed to have won 38 medals, mostly gold, in them all. In just five years too, wow.
You really have a balanced perspective that has helped you to overcome life challenges, Dick.
You’ve identified something very dear to both Lawana and I. We’ve been married for 54 years. Mormons consider our Temple Marriage to be an eternal marriage, so our family will be together on the other side. The Church and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a major part of our life.
We believe in service and it’s an unpaid ministry. One daughter served her mission in England and all our daughters were married in the Temple to returned missionary guys. We have 15 grand kids and three great grand kids, and so far, six of them have reached missionary age and gone on missions all over the world. Lawana and I together served a 3 year mission to teach the importance of continuing education to youth. We have also done humanitarian service in Africa helping to organize a measles immunization program. I’ve served as a Bishop and taught 6:30 AM morning seminary classes for 15 years. Both of us have taught young adults at the Institute of Religion next to Boise State for ten years. I also had a successful career with a major corporation and in state government.
Which company was that with?
I was with Ore-Ida for almost 25 years in two general management positions. But many of us lost our jobs at Ore-Ida and Heinz, our parent company, as the downsizing of corporations swept across America. It was a tough time for many people. I was 50 years old, was paying monthly for Shelly’s mission in England, and our two youngest daughters were still at home, too. I had to rely on faith and determination.
Even though I was offered some lucrative jobs elsewhere, we didn’t want to jerk our kids out of their schools and leave the old home town. After nine months I took a big financial hit by going to work for the Idaho Department of Commerce at a lot less of what I had been making. It was a giant blow to my ego, prestige, and confidence.
However, it all turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Why? Because the new career brought some humility and significant and enjoyable growth and new experiences. It included helping startup companies in the state and recruiting others to come to Idaho and create new jobs here. After almost 25 years traveling the country and parts of the world in the corporate business, it was a thrill to get to know my little home state better and to provide help to its people and communities. Looking back, it really helped fulfill my inherent desires to serve.
But to go back to your question about balance: Family, Christ, and the Church are the most important things to us. They impact all parts of our lives and help us be more physically and spiritually healthy. We sure aren’t perfect, but we try pretty hard to live good morals and be good citizens. Even though I did stub my toe with the diabetes, these guiding principles have given me and our family a pretty happy and healthy life.
Your wife is obviously a helper and inspiration for you. Has anyone else been a big influence on your life?
Lawana is my dearest friend and eternal companion. She’s my biggest cheerleader on the sidelines, and then helps nurse my aches and pains after the long days’ matches are finally over. Unfortunately, she can’t play anymore - she had a pretty bad injury crashing into a wall chasing down a lob - but she has been a referee at all of the big tournaments I rattled off to you. She knows more about the rules of the game than I do.
As for others, a marvelous lady named Barbara Chandler introduced tennis to the Boise School System and thereby to me. She had won the National Clay Court Championships and for years could beat every man in the state. I took lessons from her and we won many adult state mixed doubles championships when I was still in my teens, and more later in my young adult years. I idolized her, not just for her skill, but also for her sportsmanship, graciousness, service, and pure love of the sport, win or lose.
And my grandpa Alma Johnson was a huge influence on me. We would pitch pennies against the kitchen wall to win a piece of grandma’s sugared cinnamon bread at their house in Ogden, Utah. He dug little holes in the dirt in his back yard to putt golf balls into. He’d never let me win, I had to beat him. I watched, admired and respected him as he worked through his aches and pains from hours of bowling and horseshoe practice to eventually win the Utah state bowling championship in his 70’s. And he was playing people a lot younger then, just as I do now in pickleball.
I think a lot of my athletic desire came from ole Grandpa Johnson, and his valuable lessons also strengthened my strong desire to love and help my children to succeed, serve, and be happy.
Your pickleball enthusiasm must be contagious with others.
I tell people I use pickleball as the vehicle to stay active. It’s really fun and addictive, and it’s easy to learn in the beginning. People can play it recreationally for their whole lives, but you have to work really hard if you want to be go at it competitively. I’ve told my tennis friends who didn’t know much about it to Google a 5.0 pickleball match video and that really raises their respect for the game.
One thing that’s been challenging, but has been good for me, is playing down in lower age groups. In the first U.S. Open pickleball tournament three years ago, I won a bronze playing against 50-year-olds. I’m more proud of that one than the golds in my age. Several years ago I was the top point winner nationally at my skill level while playing against 50-year-olds. And, last year I was the SSIPA points winner for my age group. I still frequently play down, as it keeps me in tune to play against older people.
I love the challenge of trying to get better and, even though I’m now an old duffer, I continue to work hard to be a student of the game and improve. I am glad that so many players are asking for and really appreciate the help I give them.
But, realistically, I also know its physically getting much tougher and coming to an end. I still wouldn’t mind finally kicking the bucket after hitting a great passing shot on the court against some 50 year old youngster!