Joyce Jones, 91, Seattle, Washington
Joyce Jones has compiled an admirable athletic record by winning more than her share of championships in three racket sports over seven decades. She can’t even guess how many medals and tournaments she has won in badminton, tennis and pickleball, because her focus has been more on the pursuit of excellence and gaining rewarding social connections among her peers.
In our view, some of her best accomplishments with Senior Games have been off the court. In 1998, Washington state had no qualifying games for the National Senior Games, so Joyce and her late husband Don (also an athlete) stepped up to organize, grow and manage qualifying events for 15 years. Don also grew up with Joel Prichard, known as “the father of pickleball” so the couple picked up the passion from the source. While serving as Washington’s State Coordinator with NSGA, Joyce repeatedly petitioned to have pickleball added to National Senior Games. Her persistence paid off when it became a medal sport in 2013, and has since been regarded as one of pickleball’s major championships.
In the following conversation we had with Joyce, we discovered there is one big regret in her athletic career. While it was not a huge disappointment at the time, Joyce laments having to miss the 1991 National Senior Games in Syracuse for medical reasons. She has competed in every other National Senior Games since the beginning, and she is proud to have won at least one Gold Medal, and sometimes as many as 6, in each one. In 2019 Joyce continued to dominate her age group and scored Gold twice in both pickleball and tennis. But she still talks about “the one that got away.”
There would be other challenges over the years – surgeries on her right foot, both knees (including 3 arthroscopic and two replacements), a frozen left shoulder, two rotator cuff procedures on her right shoulder, a hernia, a broken wrist, broken elbow and broken upper arm in a fall, and cataract replacements, among other smaller surgeries. After missing Syracuse, most of the time she has been able to schedule, to have time to heal and return to the courts.
Joyce Jones represents the Personal Best outlook in many ways – both in her determination to get around challenges to keep herself active for decades, and in the selfless efforts volunteering to help guide and inspire others by creating athletic opportunities in her state and in the National Senior Games. All pickleball players owe a debt of gratitude to Joyce and Don for the opportunities they opened, and we can all draw inspiration from her story to pursue our own Personal Best.
Joyce, it’s great that you have managed to go to all but one of the National Senior Games since they started in 1987. You must have been disappointed about that.
Well, I missed The Games in Syracuse in 1991 when I had my first knee replacement surgery. But I didn’t think much about it at the time, because it was just the third one, and I had no idea that I was going to make all the rest of them, and spoil my perfect attendance record by missing Syracuse. Now it really breaks my heart that I ruined my perfect attendance record.
We hear a lot of athletes talk about scheduling procedures off-season to try to avoid having to withdraw. You’ve probably had other bumps along the way yourself.
I was playing in the International Badminton Championships in San Diego in 1978 when I slipped and fell at a restaurant. I tore the rotator cuff so badly my doctor said it was the worst he’d ever seen. He wasn’t sure he would be able to repair it. I’m glad it healed. But it’s true that I’ve had to work around several surgeries to be able to make all of my favorite tournaments.
You play three sports and have medaled and won championships in all of them. Which is your favorite?
I played badminton growing up. It was just an after-school sport, but I thought I was pretty hot stuff because I could beat all the boys in high school. I met my future husband Don, roller skating, and when I found out he played badminton, I challenged him to a match. He beat me 15-0! I found out that I wasn’t such hot stuff after all! After that, I challenged him in tennis, pickleball, table tennis, racquetball and bowling, and lost them all. I decided that I would have to marry him. We were married just 2 months short of 70 years.
Everyone asks me what my favorite sport is, and it is hard to say because I love all of them. As I said, I played badminton in high school and started playing tennis when I was 46 and my husband was 50. We bought a Tennis Club with a couple of our friends. Neither one of us had ever held a tennis racket in our hands before, but we decided if we were going to own a tennis Club, then we should probably learn how to play it.
Pickleball came third. Don grew up playing badminton with Joel Prichard, who invented Pickleball here in Washington, and he is the one who taught us how to play. I was about 55 at that time. If you can play one racket sport, then you can pretty much play all of them. It just progressed, and I love them all.
Wow! Nothing like learning a sport from the guy who invented it!
Pickleball is so wonderful. I have many friends who turned to pickleball from tennis due to bad knees, and some badminton friends who did the same from aching shoulders. It is the fastest growing sport in the country now because almost anyone can just go out and enjoy it right off the bat. Badminton and tennis take about a month or two to be able to get a good enough rally going to enjoy it.
Pickleball tournaments are now offering younger age groups. I have a picture that was taken from the 2015 Arizona State Pickleball Championships, with a 10-year-old as the youngest player entered, and 85-year-old me being the oldest.
Sounds like you continued playing together through your entire marriage.
We did, we were both very healthy and active. He passed away three years ago but I keep going. All of my children (two boys and two girls) are active in sports, and I have been trying to get them to enter the Nationals with me. So far, I haven’t succeeded because they aren’t diehard competitors like I am.
I just enjoy competing and doing all of the tournaments I have played in over the years. I enjoy playing the game, and I meet new friends year after year, and I enjoy seeing the friends I’ve made over past years. It is really a lot of fun. If you are not enjoying yourself then there is no reason to do it. I have enjoyed myself my whole life doing what I do.
You and Don also have a place in Senior Games history yourselves, stepping up to help organize Games in your state.
There were no qualifying games in Washington State for the National Senior Games at the time, and every other state had them. Don and I decided that the state really needed to have a qualification tournament, so we didn’t have to travel to other States to qualify, so we started it in 1998 and ran it for 15 years.
I was State Coordinator for three years and I tried really hard to get the NSGA Board to include pickleball in the National Senior Games, but they felt there weren’t enough States playing it. I contacted all the other 49 States to see which ones offered pickleball in their games. I took the results to the annual meeting, and tried again, but they still wouldn’t accept it. But in 2011, we persuaded them to let us put on a demonstration, and then finally, the year after that, pickleball was entered as a sport in the National Senior Games.
More history! Thanks for your passion to drive that move to bring pickleball to National Senior Games. You and Don must have been organizers even before this time.
Don and I ran a junior badminton club for 20 years because our kids all started playing badminton when they could walk. We started the group because their friends wanted to play with them too and it just evolved.
We also put on a tennis tournament at our club for about 15 years. There was no one putting out any local tennis news, and I enjoy writing, so I decided I would start a Newsletter so players would get the information on what was going on with all the tennis players in the Pacific Northwest.
Everything we did, we enjoyed doing.
You have won more than your share of medals in every sport you’ve played in Senior Games, and you’ve reached the top in other pickleball majors too. You must have a pile of them!
I don’t really keep track of my wins. The medals I get don’t mean that much to me. I keep some of the ones that mean the most to me, but I have given hundreds away. When we were moving about 20 years ago, I had two apple boxes full of medals, and a pickleball friend of mine was running junior tournaments and asked me if I had any generic ones. I found about 85 generic medals to give to him for the junior program.
Something strange happened when I did that. At the bottom of one of the boxes, there was a smaller box, and inside there were 4 paper thin sheets of gold and two paper thin sheets of silver. Printed on the little box said 1978 Senior International Badminton Championships San Diego California. I showed them to my son, and he took them to a jeweler. I got $400 for those real pieces of Gold and Silver Awards that they presented 43 years ago!
Where would you be if you were not active with your sports?
I am 91. I would probably not be around anymore. I could never even dream about not being active.
Out of my parents and siblings, I am the only one that has been active all my life and helped myself by watching what I eat.
I expect to die on the court! [Laugh] I did have four mini strokes while playing tennis a few months ago and I fell and fractured my hand. I just started playing pickleball again in mid-July. If I hadn’t been active, then I might not have survived those strokes as well as I did. I owe everything to my healthy lifestyle and playing all my sports.
You mentioned in another place that you had taken up Yoga. Has that helped?
I did it for a while, but I have always had some trouble standing too long in one place. Another volunteer job I did was umpiring badminton, tennis and pickleball. I would ask them to bring me a chair, and then I’d be happy to help. Everyone asks, ‘How can you play all of your sports and not be able to stand?’ I can’t explain it. While standing, you aren’t moving your muscles or really doing anything so I can’t stand that long. With sports, you are active and moving around all the time so it must just keep you loose. A pickleball friend asked me to take tap dance lessons with her when we were 70, but that only lasted a few months because my knees didn’t like it!
Everyone has to find their own mix of activities.
I play pickleball three to four times a week, and a tennis match once a week now. I have limited my badminton because of a stiff neck that won’t let me look up. In badminton, if you can’t look up, you’re dead in the water! My competitive juices still force this old body to try for every shot, even if there’s no chance I can possibly make it. [Laugh]
What can you tell others about the benefits of an active lifestyle as you age?
I think people pretty much know the benefits. You live a longer life. You meet people, and you enjoy life. It is very invigorating.
The most important advice is to have fun whatever it is you do. I’m a competitor, and I love trying to win tournaments. But if you don’t enjoy playing and being with friends, what’s the use?