You never know who is standing across the pickleball net from you.
At first blush, we are all there to have a good time and get some exercise. But, over time, we slowly learn the backgrounds, stories, and personalities of who may be next to us or across the pickleball net from us. And, every pickleball player has a great story.
This recently happened to me with a relatively new pickleball friend named Dotty Zerbst. After playing recreationally with Dotty a few times, she opened up about her history with sport. Her story is surprising and left me with an important lesson that I think would speak to a lot of us—pickleball player or not.
Dotty’s first love, like many in the pickleball community, was tennis. She started playing at the ripe age of 4 in South Africa, where she spent her childhood. By the age of 13—before Dotty could even see over the tennis net—Dotty was ranked #1 in both singles and doubles tennis in her country. She saw her path of pursuing pro tennis very clearly.
However, at this time, Dotty started feeling pain in the right wrist and arm, which was her dominant arm on the tennis court as a right-handed player. She would cry in her sleep, as her wrist and arm would swell and throb with pain. It was even hard for her to simply hold the racquet.
After visiting around ten specialists, Dotty was finally diagnosed with a fibromatosis, which was a tumor in her arm. Upon the diagnosis, the doctor wanted to operate immediately, which resulted in removing the tumor, removing some of Dotty’s muscle and bone, and then placing a pin in her arm. The doctor then proceeded to prescribe radiation and inform the young teenager that she would never play tennis again.
Devastation was an understatement for the young Dotty, who had a dream tennis career seemingly taken away from her. When reflecting on this time, Dotty noted that “the saying, ‘blood, sweat, and tears,’ is legit—even though there may have been a lot more tears than anything else.” But that is not where her story ends (despite the tumor growing back a year later and having to have a second surgery to remove it).
Dotty, who was now still just a teenager at 14, still loved tennis and refused to believe she could never play tennis again—regardless of any doctor’s orders. So, she taught herself to play tennis with her other hand. Dotty stood in front of the mirror for hours—as the doctor told her she could not be in the sun for a period of time—and did shadow swings. She would breakdown her swing on the right-hand side into segments—backswing, swing path to contact, etc. Then, she would mirror her mechanics with her left arm.
After many trying months playing left-handed—where tennis players she used to beat 6-0 were now beating her 6-0—Dotty started to master the left-handed mechanics. So much so that, by the time Dotty reached 19 years old, she again was ranked top 5 in her country of South Africa and claimed world doubles tennis ranking in the top 200—all playing left-handed!
It is important to note that Dotty credits her success and ability to continue to play tennis to her support team that continued to encourage her to push and chase her passion. This includes her parents and brother (as her dad would help her drill and toss tennis balls every day after work), as well as a sports psychologist that helped her overcome the mental struggles that she faced throughout her journey.
Thanks to her dedication, too, Dotty went on to continue her tennis career as a coach and has now transitioned to the sport of pickleball. She is now pushing herself to climb the pickleball rankings on the pro tour, as she takes to the court on the APP Tour as a Selkirk-sponsored athlete.
When reflecting upon Dotty’s determination to overcome these unfortunate health issues, there are a few life lessons that jump out. In Dotty’s own words, these include:
- If you really love something, do not give up on it. No matter how difficult it may be at the time. If you are passionate about something, then find a way to overcome your obstacle.
- What might have seemed devastating at the time—for instance, “why is this happening to me?”—now changed me for the better. There is always a silver lining, which is that I am the person I am today for going through my journey. Things happen for a reason—whether in sport or otherwise. I appreciate things much more than I did for my journey, too (including being a lefty on the pickleball court, as there are not that many of us).
Bottom line—find a way to pursue your passion… like Dotty.