A unique pickleball opportunity in Fairbanks
Alaska International Senior Games, Aug. 6-14
July 1, 2022 | View PDF
The Alaska International Senior Games (AISG) is the official Alaska state qualifier for pickleball for the National Senior Games Assoc. (NSGA), which is a national organization of athletes age 50 and older. And this year's AISG Games will be the Alaska qualifying event for the NSGA Pickleball Championships in Pittsburgh, Pa., July 7-18, 2023.
Diann Darnall, president of Alaska International Senior Games (AISG), says pickleball was requested to be included in the games in 2011, and was introduced to the games by AISG's first commissioner Daloona Cooper in 2013. About 45 to 50 players have been the norm since then. In 2019 there were a few more players in the men's singles and mixed doubles category, but in 2020 the games were canceled due to COVID.
The first seven years, games ran from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., but this year pickleball will be held indoors at UAF's Patty Center starting at 6 p.m. Darnall says the hope is that younger seniors, those people still working, will be able to participate and the numbers will grow.
Because the events are open to Outside players, Alaskans can expect to compete against players from states like Tennessee, Arizona, California and Washington. And there is a large contingent from Whitehorse, YT.
Outside players can qualify for the Nationals tournament in Fairbanks and challenge Alaskan players for the medals.
"Alaska is on their bucket list," said Darnall. "So, they'll add a trip to the Arctic Circle, or Chena Hot Springs, or Denali." The top four players in each age bracket plus the top four Alaskans can go on to the Nationals.
Jamie Callahan, 67, of Fairbanks, was the commissioner for five years and has played in four AISG pickleball tournaments. She enjoys playing in the tournaments because "if somebody comes from Outside, they are probably going to be pretty good".
Her favorite aspect of playing in AISG is "playing against players I don't know. It's kind of a mystery. I have to quickly come up with a strategy and understand their game."
The other thing she likes about pickleball is "certainly the social part." Because she sometimes picks up a partner to play in doubles, "You have to be nice to everybody because you'll have to play with them at some point."
Claire Meranda is this year's commissioner of pickleball. Meranda is very excited to have the games on the Patty Center's wood floor, one that "won't need to be vacuumed, squeegeed and fanned dry after a rain."
She says the brackets, which are the age groups in which people play (50-54, 55-59, 60-64, etc.) have not been full in the past, so it's more likely for participants to medal in the events.
More than half the participants come from outside Fairbanks. She encourages local players to participate and not be worried that players from other places might be a higher caliber. "That's not the case", she said, "and there's lots of value in competing against players you're not used to playing against". Last year during COVID, because of the dearth of players, "literally, everyone qualified for the Nationals."
Normally, NSGA championships are every other year. However, COVID twisted the schedule. The qualifier for the 2022 Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., games was in 2021. (A year was skipped due to COVID.) So, there are back-to-back years for both NSGA and state qualifier events.
This year's Alaska International Senior Games is a qualifying event for the 2023 NSGA Pickleball Championships in Pittsburg. The plan is to go back to every other year for qualifying events from now on.
Focus on fun
Paul Knight, 69, of Homer has been to AISG three times. He says, tongue in cheek, that when he wears his National Senior Games t-shirt people are very impressed, but, he notes, "anyone who signs up and tries out (in the Alaska-qualifying Senior Games) can go to the Nationals". While competition is good, people should not be intimidated, he says. "It's competitive but not overly so. Level of play is good, but anybody thinking about going to the Alaska Senior Games should just do it."
He played one time at the National Senior Pickleball tournament, in 2019 in Albuquerque, NM, and never made it out of the first round. But the Alaska Games are different, he says. "Camaraderie is good, a group of 20 will go out to a restaurant at the end of the day and have a drink and make friends. It's all fun."
Registration ends on July 25. Save $20 when you register by July 15. https://www.alaskaisg.org/games/registration/.
You must be 50 years old by December 31, 2022 to qualify as a senior.
Jim Lavrakas has lived in Alaska for almost a half century. The self-proclaimed "squirrel man" has found a lively outlet in the pursuit of pickleball. You can reach him at http://www.FarNorthPress.com.