CLEARWATER — Jimmi Symonds, 68, stared down the court at her opponent, slowly turning the orange ball in her hand as she prepared to serve.
Barbara Reis, 66, had trounced Symonds in the last game. But now the two were tied in the final game of their pickleball match. (For the uninitiated, think of tennis on a smaller court with a hard type of wiffle ball).
Symonds fired off her serve and Reis flubbed the return, sending the ball wide and out-of-bounds.
"No, no, no," Reis said under her breath, slapping the paddle against her leg in frustration.
The match was part of this week's 2018 Florida Senior Games, which brought out nearly 2,600 senior athletes ranging in age from 50 to 97 to compete across Pinellas County.
About 350 of them will play pickleball, a fast-growing, hugely popular sport in senior communities. The smaller court, low net and relatively quick games make it more accessible for older athletes.
For some of the men, the tournament is a chance to channel the competitive edge they honed on basketball courts and baseball diamonds as young athletes so many years ago.
But for many of the female athletes here, the Florida Senior Games and similar tournaments offer a competitive outlet they didn't have access to growing up.
These women are part of the pre-Title IX era. Born in the 1930s through 60s, they didn't enjoy the benefits the monumental gender equity law laid out for future generations, including their daughters and grand-daughters, when it passed in 1972.
Take Tina Rosenquist, 65. The avid pickleball player loved sports as a young girl, including playing football with her brothers. But when it came time for school sign-ups, she and other girls were left with few options. Tennis and track were available, but not much else.
"I enjoyed all sports, but I was supposed to be in the kitchen learning to cook," Rosenquist said. "That was our generation."
Kathy Vollmer's true passion was basketball. But Vollmer, 66, didn't have the chance to play in school. If she and other girls wanted to shoot hoops, they had to scrounge together their own match-ups.
"We had to do own thing and form our own games," Vollmer said of girls at the time. "There was nothing official. Title IX came about shortly after that."
The law changed everything for female athletes. That's why Rosenquist teared up when her own daughter joined a girls hockey team in Minnesota so many years later. Her daughter didn't quite understand the emotion, but to Rosenquist, it was a sign that things really had changed for the next generation.
"We women have worked so hard for equal gender in sports," Rosenquist said. "We set the stage for you."
Now, those same women are clinching championships of their own through opportunities like the senior games.
For many, sports like pickleball are a way to stay active and also keep an active social life after retirement. Friendships form on courts and span across state lines. But despite how courteous the play is — "nice shot" and "good one" echo frequently in the gym — the competition is real.
"In our heads we're 35, and our bodies just scream at us," Vollmer said.
Reis, who lost her first match against Symonds, climbed her way up through the loser's bracket (dubbed by some as the opportunity bracket). She made the finals after four straight wins. Three hours in, her legs started to cramp. She lost the next point and slapped the paddle twice against her thigh.
"Stupid," she snapped at herself. "Stupid play."
Outwardly, Reis was one of the most competitive athletes on the court. She was quick to judge her play and vent her frustration. But she also was able to settles those nerves and get back in each game, calming her play and focusing on the next point.
She went on to win the gold medal.
Reis, who lives in Bradenton, happens to be one of the few women who had the opportunity to play team sports in high school and college.
She attended an all-girls Catholic school in Buffalo which fielded teams against other girls schools in the region.
"That was really good for me," Reis said. "I was lucky."
Reis joined the softball team, playing fast-pitch through high school and college. By that point, female collegiate sports were getting traction but many programs were still in their infancy.
"Everything was just getting going," Reis said. "There were no scholarship opportunities for us. But we'd go on bus trips and eat out, and I thought that was a big deal."
In the years after, she pitched for a team in a Canadian-American league. The would travel to Toronto and other big cities. Women's softball was much more popular in Canada than in the states, she said.
She stopped pitching in her 30s, but kept active with other sports over the years. Racquetball was one of her favorites, until she found pickleball through an advertisement for free classes at the local library. She quickly took to the sport, which she found to be kinder on her body.
She competes frequently, entering tournaments all over the state. Just last week, she won the AAU National Outdoor Pickleball Championship in Punta Gorda.
She's not sure how long she'll be able to keep playing, but she hopes her body allows her to keep competing for as long as she can.
"You figure everyone else is slowing down, too," she said. ""Hopefully it's at the same pace."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.