As I sat in Helsinki Airport with my Americano coffee on Monday morning, I was too exhausted to do anything but reflect on the past week I spent in Helsinki, Finland. While my time in Finland was short, my days were full with nonstop activity from morning to night, with a few days stretching into the early hours of the next day before my head hit the pillow. This time of year there are nineteen hours of daylight each day, so it’s easy to forget the time and then realize that it’s after 11pm because it’s still somewhat light out. Mornings come extra early too, with it starting to get light around 3am.
If you have been following this blog, you have heard me say that winning a medal isn’t my first priority. That’s true, but I have to admit that not winning a medal would have been disappointing. I am proud to be taking home a gold medal in the 4.0 mixed doubles (with Leo), but this blog isn’t about what I am taking home in my suitcase. It’s about what I carry home in my heart. If you have never been to an international tournament, I’m not sure you will be able to understand by merely reading my words, but I’ll do my best.
This was my fourth international tournament (Madrid, 2015, Amsterdam, 2016, Kent, UK and Finland, 2017) and each one has outdone the previous one as my international pickleball family grows. Simply put, aside from the competition, the tournaments are very passionate and heart warming experiences. Unlike in America where there are so many tournaments to choose from all over the country, a big tournament in Europe only happens a couple of times a year. Those who participate travel long distances at great expense to follow their love of the game and to play and be with others who feel the same way. There is often a common tournament hotel, a tournament dinner and other events planned, so everyone gets to know each other in just a few days.
Old friends from past tournaments reunite and new friendships are made. It’s difficult to describe the atmosphere at a tournament, other than to say there is so much love felt and displayed between players/friends. Shaking hands in greeting is quickly replaced with hugs and kisses, particularly before and after matches. To some, whose cultures don’t usually display that kind of affection, it might seem strange or uncomfortable at first, but that quickly changes for most.
Languages differ, but do not create barriers. Nearly everyone speaks some amount of English. My Spanish friends have been learning English and in the last two years have improved so much! My women’s doubles partner, Gema from Madrid is now able to understand most things I say (as long as I don’t talk too fast and keep my sentences short and to the point…..which isn’t my forte!) and we are now able to have a conversation in English. I am so impressed and proud of her improvement! (Gema, if you are reading this, I’m sorry I was not able to learn Spanish for you. You make me want to try harder……or maybe I will just keep Leo by my side to translate!)
Speaking of languages, some of the hardest for this American to understand are the Scottish, and my friend Louise from the SLAPpers club (South London Area Pickleball). Good Lord, help me understand them! It seems odd to have to ask for a translation from English to English! I’ve decided if I take out the “wee’s” from Scot’s, Liz and Janice’s sentences I can grasp what they are saying a wee bit better. But Louise, well I’m afraid there’s no help for her! I heard her call the score in a game and had no idea what she said. “Fur ‘een, for ‘een, two.” I’m sorry Louise, I can’t help myself from laughing at everything you say that I find funny…..which is about everything! Cheers to South London and the SLAPers! Thanks for the tee shirt. I will wear my SLAP tee proudly! (Louise, my PB “husband” Leo is a member of SLAP, so by law doesn’t that make me one too?)
The Finland tournament, sponsored by Pro-Lite, included four Pro-Lite professionals, Gigi LeMaster, Bill Ritchie, Brian Ashworth, and Canadian, Cookie Drake attending. One of the special things about pickleball is how gracious and reachable most professionals are to their admirers. Most will take time to talk to anyone who stops them to say hello, even if they are playing in big tournaments in the States. While many of us look up to them as icons or celebrities of our sport, they are humble and appreciate the graciousness of their fans. Having them at the international tournaments is such a treat. We play matches with them and against them, all the while learning everything we can from the experience. While always admired for their skills and accomplishments, we become one big family, laughing, acting stupid, and enjoying each other’s company on and off the courts. It’s a truly amazing and exceptional relationship between pickleball players who quickly become friends. I am happy to be able to call Brian, Bill Cookie and Gigi my friends.
I have a few things I’d like to say directly to a few people.
To my Finnish friend, Sara – I wish you well as you go through your bone marrow transplant. I will be thinking of you and sending you positive energy from America. Thank you for taking me to your favorite cafe for lunch. I enjoyed walking around Helsinki with you and later meeting your parents and your boyfriend. Good luck to you.
To my tournament “pickleball wife,” Gema – We might not have won a medal this time, but I loved playing with you and I think we were able to learn from our experience. I hope we can play in another tournament together someday. In the meantime, I am now comfortable saying your name properly and comfortably without spitting on anyone! (Hhhema, with a little throat gurgle!) Thanks for the dance on Sunday! I love you, my Spanish sister.
To Julie – you are the real deal. I enjoyed our chat and getting to know you a bit. Keep the faith girl…..get to know and love yourself and what’s most important to YOU. Then one day, without warning and when you least expect it, you will be pleasantly surprised at how all the pieces of your life fit together easily.
To Clare – I treasure our friendship. I know we will frequently chat on Messenger, as we have for the past two years. One sentence or a whole conversation, it’s always a pleasure. Your game has come a long way since Madrid in 2015 when you were afraid to come to the kitchen line! Could you have imagined then that you would be a 4.0 Bronze medal winner? (Even if it was with an axe murderer.) Keep the faith, girl.
Bonita and Emma – You two are a breath of fresh air. You are the yin/yan of couples! Happy one year anniversary. Glad I could spend it with you! You both make me laugh and are so easy to be with. Emma, how ’bout flying over in October and staying with us too? Tempting? Yes? Love you guys!
Mike Daly – you are the sweetest man on Earth, and your wife Jane is beautiful in every way. Keep smiling! You make dull days brighter.
Leo, my pickleball husband – Our friendship means the world to me. You are the kindest, most sincere man I know. I was so lucky to have met you in Oxfordshire in 2014! I try not to roll my eyes as much, (or at least not get caught), but I’m sure that’s been replaced with a different facial expression or gesture! Keep on poaching……just be sure to make the shot if you steal my forehand! I can’t can’t wait to see you in Toledo in two weeks to play in my home club’s tournament. I will always treasure our Gold medal from the Finland tournament. There’s only one you, love.
Tuomo – your hard work paid off in a big way. The 2nd International Finland Pickleball Tournament goes down as one of the best tournament so far! Although I’m sure you are mentally exhausted today, “the day after”, I hope you are also beaming with pride. Kiitos, my friend. I hope we will continue to chat on Messenger as well.
Gigi, Cookie, Bill, Brian – It was good to see you all again (and meet you for the first time, Brian). I so enjoy spending time with you all, from our rainy adventure to the bus stop which included trampoline jumping and xylophone playing, to chats at breakfast each morning. Getting to play with and against you on the pickleball court is such a treat. You are all class acts. Pro-lite is lucky to have you represent them.
Faye – keep working on your skills. You’ve got what it takes! You are, in my opinion one of the best Europe has to offer presently, and you’ve only just tapped your abilities. I hope to see you at the US Open next year, and I will be glad to NOT be playing in your age bracket! Keep smiling and laughing! Its contagious!
I could go on for a while. There are so many people I could talk about, but I had to board the plane and well……as soon as we left the ground I was unexpectedly overwhelmed with emotion. My eyes overflowed with tears and I could barely see to type any more. In the end though, that says it all. It’s all about the love. That’s the reason I go.
Kiitos to my Finnish family
Gracias my Spanish family
Merci to my favorite Frenchmen
Dank u to my Dutch family
Tack to my Swedish family
Thank you to the rest of you, my English speaking family
I love you all.