Andy Leighton, 73, Arlington, Virginia
Andy Leighton has learned over the years that you don’t give anything away to your opponents – you make them earn everything. For the past decade, that outlook has been put to test, as he now has a second opponent to face every day: Parkinson’s Disease.
“After the diagnosis, I went into a bit of a funk for several weeks,” he recalls. “But I learned there are things you can do to slow its advance if you work hard at it. A neurologist told me, ‘If you keep your activity level up, you probably won’t need a cane in ten years.’ The implication was I would be hobbling around. Well, here it is ten years later, and I can compete at the National Senior Games in Pickleball!”
Andy’s history of staying fit through sports and recreation has given him fortitude and life lessons to tackle this new foe. The Syracuse, New York native says he was a late bloomer, often finding himself the last guy chosen for little league teams. Then he discovered tennis in high school, and it extended to playing for Hartwick College. “My claim to fame is that I might be the first tennis player in the NCAA to go from team manager to team MVP in one year,” he quips.
Prior to joining Senior Games, the now-retired Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority employee captained his federal tennis league team and competed in other tournaments around northern Virginia, often in mixed doubles play with his wife, Helen White. “I met her playing tennis, and I had the edge on her for years. Then, she got a head start on me playing pickleball, and now the roles are reversed. I’ll be darned if I can beat her now!”
While he credits Helen (herself a 2013 NSGA Athlete of the Month) for being an irreplaceable coach, care partner and playing partner, he also enjoys a support group of followers from his pickleball friends that has become known as Andy’s Army. “People would come out to encourage me at tournaments, so I thought I would make it fun and bought everyone shirts. Our slogan is ‘Pickleball over Parkinson’s’ and the group now numbers over 50.”
The progressive degenerative disease affects movement and may cause tremors and severe balance issues. Migrating to the smaller pickleball court allowed Andy to remain competitive. Two years in, he wasn’t experiencing major issues, but Helen saw signs in his play. “I noticed Andy’s balance was off, his center of gravity was too high, and his footwork was setting him up for a fall,” she says. “So I gave him a gift of training sessions and it has paid off in more ways than one.”
Andy concentrates on agility drills in balance and footwork and has not experienced a fall since his diagnosis. “One of the things it can do is shorten your gait, which is a problem for falls,” Andy explains. “It’s trying to do that to me, so I make sure to stretch out and make each first step a big one. People with Parkinson’s can also experience ‘freezing’ where you attempt to step forward and your feet don’t move, which leads to falls. That hasn’t happened to me yet, and maybe it won’t.”
“My Parkinson’s is advancing, but at a much slower rate than it would have without doing all this training,” he continues. “The extra work and agility drills is paying off. I’m literally trying to outlive this thing.”
Andy can’t wait to go to Greater Fort Lauderdale for the 2021 National Senior Games presented by Humana, where some of “Andy’s Army” will be there to cheer him on. But he’s not satisfied just to be an inspiration. “I’m realistic enough to know that if I play a world champ I might not win, but I’m not intimidated,” he says. “I’m not here just to fill up playing space. I’m here to take a medal.”