STERLING – What do you get when you team up a pair of local middle-aged men who once played a lot of racquetball and ping pong?
How about national recognition in what is considered to be the fastest-growing sport in the country?
That's what Paul Biggerstaff, 60, of Woosung, and Michael Mekeel, 55, of Galt accomplished.
They competed at the Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships on May 1 at East Naples Community Park in East Naples, Florida, and took third place in the 3.5 skill level, 55 and older division.
Their skill level is 3.5, a figure considered to be between novice and intermediate on an ascending expertise scale of one to five.
They brought their bronze medals back to the local pickleball courts Saturday for their regular weekly session at Westwood Sports Complex, and hope their success can spawn more in the local scene.
“We have a huge group between Dixon and Sterling, and we can load these six courts up pretty regularly,” said Mekeel, a service technician at GS Products. “The sport continues to grow locally as well.”
Played with paddles and whiffle balls, what sets pickleball apart from other court sports is that there's not as much court to cover, as opposed to tennis.
Biggerstaff, the maintenance manager at St. Marys Cement in Dixon, first learned of the sport 5 years ago. Unlike his racquetball days, he enjoys playing along with someone else. There's not as much reach in doubles play.
"It’s also a lot easier on your joints," he said. "It’s still quite physically demanding, but you don’t get banged up near as bad as you do racquetball or full-court tennis.”
They also won in their age group in this year’s Winter Iowa Senior Games, last year’s Summer Iowa games, and took runner-up in last year’s Senior Olympics.
Biggerstaff and Mekeel opened play in Florida with a 11-3, 11-8 win over the team of Patrick McNamara and Ben Garfunkel, a match that Mekeel said got them relaxed from the pressure of competing on a grand stage. However, in their next match, they fell into the loser’s bracket with a 12-10, 11-8 loss, despite having served game point twice, to eventual gold medalists Nate Jackson and Keith Salisbury.
“It was a tight match, but they were just a little stronger than us that day,” Biggerstaff said.
Consolation winners only needed to be victorious in just one set, and it didn’t take too long for Biggerstaff and Mekeel to rebound; they had little trouble with Tim Mottl and Paul Steinberg in a 15-1 win. After they beat John Wagner and Jeff Ritter 15-11, Biggerstaff and Mekeel were paired up with eventual championship bracket semifinalists Phil Reginelli and Jim Enger.
“We stayed calm, worked our way through it and ended up on top in those games,” Mekeel said.
After they came back from a deficit of as large as five points to win 15-10, the third-place match gave Biggerstaff and Mekeel a rematch with McNamara and Garfunkel.
The second time around proved to be a tougher challenge than their first meeting, but Biggerstaff and Mekeel came away with a 12-10, 11-9 late night win for the bronze.
The people on the other end of the net weren’t the only opponents.
"There was a storm coming in, and the wind was ferocious,” Biggerstaff said.
If the storm had won mid-match, the duo wouldn't have brought bronze medals back home.
“A big part of winning those games was keeping the ball in and not making mistakes," Biggerstaff said. "There was a sense of urgency, and we were trying to push the match along to make sure we didn’t get rained out.”
The pair have played together for 3 years, and each has learned something about the game from one another.
“He’s helped me with staying in the game mentally,” Biggerstaff said. “It’s at least 50% mental and 50% physical. Mentally, you can lose a game real quick if you get down, and start hitting balls in the net or long.”
“He’s taught me a great deal about the game, and keeps me calmed down as well,” Mekeel added. “I get a little fired up sometimes, and he’s talking me down to play within myself.”
The duo tries to play in one or two tournaments a month. They'll be at the Capital City Pickleball Classic July 4-7 in Springfield, and the Chicago Open July 17-21.
Ppickleball pro Michael Shears also hopes the success that Biggerstaff and Mekeel have accomplished continues to help spread the word about the sport, no matter how old or young, or fit or busy.
“It’s real exciting for this area,” Shears said. “Paul Biggerstaff and Mike Mekeel are a huge part of this pickleball community. They’re really well liked, help others, and give back to the community in the sport.”