Ruby Rott, 80, Saint Paul, Minnesota
When we first invited Ruby Rott to be a Personal Best athlete, she didn’t feel she was worthy of the recognition, instead suggesting another Minnesota tennis player in his 90’s who won two medals at last year’s National Senior Games. After all, she had only finally managed to capture a Silver Medal in Cleveland last year after ten attempts. And who would be interested in a story about an ordinary person and average athlete? We are, and you will be too.
While we have certainly featured elite athletes, and any competitor’s goal is to win, the fact is that a majority of people in the Senior Games Movement are average athletes who derive fitness, fun and fellowship as rich rewards for participating.
Retirement offers people a second chance at life, and Ruby Rott seized it, taking up tennis at the age of 55 with absolutely no sports experience. Growing up in rural South Dakota, she didn’t even know what tennis was until she was a teen. Then came college, job, marriage and the task of raising three children. Ruby, an avid sports fan, lived vicariously through her daughter as she excelled in track, basketball and volleyball through her college years.
Ruby knew she should exercise, but got tired of the drudge and thought it might be more fun to find a sport and enjoy the adrenaline rush of competition that she witnessed in her daughter. She visited a nearby tennis center and a whole new world opened for her. Almost immediately she met other players who had been to state and national Senior Games and she wanted in. She failed to qualify for national competition in her first attempt, but since then has made the cut and been in every one since 1993. Her perseverance finally landed her on the national medal podium last year, despite playing with two recent knee replacements. Players now tell her she is their role model.
With the 2015 National Senior Games Presented by Humana coming to Minnesota, Ruby is also a recruiter as others see the opportunity to qualify and play for host state pride in the largest multi-sport event in the world for seniors. Ruby’s story is extra-ordinary because she offers a path that any aging adult can also follow to enjoy a much higher quality of life and achieve his or her own Personal Best. All one has to do is take that first step.
How did this love affair with tennis get going?
I got tired of exercising to Joanie Greggains fitness tapes to keep me physically fit and decided to do something else. I thought about different sports that people in their 50’s could play. There was a tennis center nearby and I felt it could give me the physical fitness and the fun of playing a competitive sport with the local club. They encouraged me to give it a try and I’ve been addicted to it since then. (Laughs) One of the pros gave me some private lessons and the rest was history. I got hooked!
On the tennis court now everybody tells me that I’m their role model (Chuckles). If I continue to play that encourages them to keep playing.
We have heard you are a total tennis nut, yet you didn’t start until you were 55. What took you so long?
I lived vicariously through my daughter in her sports. With Title IX she had opportunities that I did not have, so I followed her and lived through her until she graduated from college.
I didn’t even know what tennis was when I was in school. I grew up on a farm in a small town called Corona in northeast South Dakota. It was a multipurpose farm with like 12 cows, some pigs and chickens, and we grew corn, wheat and some flax. At that time we only had one extremely small school that had first grade through high school. I was in a class of seven seniors. And there were like three faculty and one was the superintendant. Can you imagine?
So everyone got to know each other pretty well.
You better believe it. (Laughs) All they had was boys basketball and no girls sports. The only opportunity I would have had was to be a cheerleader. After graduating, I went to Sioux Falls College about a hundred miles away for one year, transferred to a Bible college in Chicago for four years, and then got married and started to work clerical and administrative jobs. I worked for the Veterans Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and then held a civil service job for the Air Force in California while my husband finished his masters degree. I like to say I got a PHT…that means Putting Hubby Through. (Laughs)
We moved to St. Paul in 1962. Everything we owned fit on top of our car. While my three children were growing up I transferred all of my credits to Metro State University and finally got my BA in chemical dependency family counseling. Secretarial work provided more funds than counseling so I opted for more money. I took an early retirement in 1997 but after a year discovered that if I wanted to continue in tennis I had to get back to work. I chose an occupation as a direct support professional in a group home for the developmentally disadvantaged for over ten years. I worked a night shift in order to keep on playing tennis during the daytime.
Now that’s commitment.
Well, it was the kind of job where you didn’t have to stay awake all night. It was ideal for me but I finally retired a little over a year ago.
When did you learn about the National Senior Games?
I found out about it pretty much right away because some of the people I played with had been in Senior Games. So that got me interested. Almost immediately after I started tennis I participated in qualifying competition for 1991. I didn’t make it, but I came close. My first games were in Baton Rouge in 1993, and I have not missed a one since then. I always qualify for both singles and doubles except 1999 when I did not make it in singles. I did actually try competing in 5K in 1997 in Tucson and came out close to the bottom. I also tried out some track.
Now you have a Silver Medal to show for it.
That was the first one. I’ve gotten a lot of ribbons in the past. I’m happy to be in the 80 to 84 range I guess because I was the very youngest in my age group. One lady jokingly told me she was consoled because she was beaten by a younger lady. (Laughs) The tennis player that beat me in Cleveland is rated two levels above my level and she beat me handily. I found out there are 81 year old tennis ladies who still have 4.0 NTRP ratings. She really walloped me but it was fun.
What do you like most about your participation?
It’s the experience of competing against women of my own age in other locales. When I was in Cleveland it was great to meet gals from New York, Connecticut and Virginia you know, to get to know them. Being a part of it gives me energy and motivation to keep going.
In 2001, I established a partner in doubles with Pat Dahlman, who lives near me in White Bear Lake. It was pros from a club that recommended we pair up for the National Senior Games. Cleveland was our 7th time together as partners. We aren’t on the same teams here, but we email each other frequently and we have the same political, social and spiritual values that have made us close friends. I would say she has become my closest friend. And that’s a real plus. I never would have gotten to know her like this if it hadn’t been for tennis.
The good news is that you don’t have to travel far to play in the Nationals next year.
That’s right. Pat and I have already signed up to play in the Minnesota qualifying games in August. We took advantage of the $5 discount to register early. Hopefully our bodies will hold up and allow us to compete in 2015.
It will mean a lot less financial output and it will be much more convenient. I’m very familiar with the Baseline Tennis Center at the University of Minnesota so it will feel like I’m playing on my home court. There are outdoor and indoor courts there. I’ve been told that the air conditioned ones will be for the older people, so I’m pretty sure I will qualify for that. (Chuckles)
There’s a lot more interest among all of my tennis friends to enter the Minnesota Senior Games. Deborah Ely-Lawrence, one of my doubles league partners at the Inner City Tennis Club, is young enough to be my daughter. She’s 58 and plans to compete in her own age group because of my recommendation. She says I have a wicked serve.
What physical challenges have you overcome as a senior athlete?
I go for back therapy two times a week. It’s not enjoyable but it keeps me on the court. I’m very grateful for my Energy Body Therapist, Trish Pool, who has volunteered her services in alleviating numerous aches and pains for many years. I also have to watch my heart rate. I wear a monitor. My primary physician tells me I should not exceed 160 which I sometimes do in singles play. But that seems to be improving. In Cleveland I didn’t think about heart rates. (Chuckles)
My first real physical challenge was in 2005. At that time there wasn’t any Minnesota senior games organization and it prompted me to try to get together all of the Minnesota athletes at the Pittsburgh National Senior Games. A track competitor (JoAnn Hell) and I were planning a dinner social, and a couple of weeks before that I had some sharp pains and ended up in the hospital for a surgical procedure to deal with a kidney infection. I had to make a lot of phone calls from the hospital, making final arrangements with the hotel and so on. It was a lot of work, and it was not recommended that I go to Pittsburgh, but I made it. And I played. (Chuckles) I think we even got a 5th place ribbon in doubles if I remember correctly.
My next biggest challenge was that my knees really started bothering me. I tried everything I could with treatments and so forth to correct the arthritis and degeneration that was going on. I knew that I had to do something and made the decision to have two knee replacements in 2012. My Stryker Triathlon knee implants are doing very well for me. I don’t even think about them when I’m playing.
The latest hurdle was with my right arm after I came home from Cleveland. Thanks to a cortisone shot in my shoulder in September I’ve been able to continue playing. I’ve also been coping with familial tremors and just got new orthotics for plantar fasciitis. Now I’m a little slower, but I’m still on the court today. Tennis is a sport for all ages.
What would you say to folks who were like you and haven’t made the move to get active?
It makes life worth living when I’m playing my sport. I guess that the main thing is that it brings a meaning to life that you otherwise don’t have if you are a couch potato.
Do you surprise yourself with what you can still do?
Sometimes. Last week at practice I really surprised myself at the kind of shots that I was able to hit and win points. In my last match I beat a woman in her ’50s! That was an encouragement, thinking that I can still do it. And I’ll keep doing it as long as this body will let me.