Carroll County Times
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Pickleball national champ hones his game at South Carroll Senior Center

ELDERSBURG — — A former Taneytown resident who hones his game in Eldersburg brought home gold after he traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to play pickleball with his doubles partner in The National Senior Games (NSG).

Tom Henry, 70, of Perry Hall, and Jerry Clark, 71, of Gaithersburg, came in first in the men's doubles pickleball tournament for competitors aged 70 to 74. Henry used to live in Taneytown and regularly practices at the South Carroll Senior and Community Center.


This year marked the 30th anniversary of the games, which are held every other year and are the largest multisport event in the world for seniors, according to their website, drawing thousands of competitors from across the country.

pickleball had been in the games just twice prior to 2017. Henry and Clark are the first two Maryland pickleball players to win gold.


"It was a really unique experience," Henry said. "Definitely the highlight of any tournament I have played."

The pair had strategized that 2017 was their best year to take a crack at the NSG, while they were still on the younger end of their age bracket and before skilled players aged into it.

"I was the baby this year," Henry joked, about turning 70 in time for the competition.

Clark and Henry are friends who share a mutual appreciation for each other's competitive skills.

They became doubles partners after seeing each other at tournaments around the country. Clark said their skills complement each other. He plays with greater finesse while Henry plays with more power.

What is most important to their success, Clark said, is their ability to agree on strategy together and execute it. "You can't be fighting," he said. "It needs to be, 'This is the best way our team stands a chance to win this event.'"

On the day of the NSG competition, they worked their way through a double-elimination bracket of 37 other teams. The event began at 7 a.m., and Henry said it lasted until well into the evening as they played through 15 matches total, including the final against Harold Kieta and Robert Sproull, both from New York.

The medal match was close. Clark and Henry, having come though the winners bracket, were well-rested but feared that they might be stiff compared to their competitors who were playing consistently against other teams.


Both agreed that pickleball is a strategic sport as well as a physical one. "We probably changed our position on the court about 30 different times to give the teams a different look when they were trying to figure out how to beat us," Clark said. "We had that versatility as well as that strategic knowledge."

"At one point it was 13 to 10 against us," Henry said. But they pulled through and won the match 15 to 13, securing their gold medals.

Both men have been playing for around six years and practice at least five times a week.

Henry said he practices at the South Carroll center often.

"It's fortunate that we have a wonderful facility in Carroll County that allows all the seniors to practice their skills," he said.

He expressed his gratitude to the employees at the center and the county's Parks and Recreation Department. "They do a great job for us," he said.


He was introduced to the sport by Bob Eney, ambassador for the USA pickleball Association, based in Carroll, and said he loved it right away.

"A lot of talent comes out of this place," Eney said of the senior center.

About a half-dozen center regulars participated in the NSG in various sports.

pickleball is popular there, and numbers are growing. Upwards of 30 players can be found using the center's three courts every weekday morning. Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings are for beginning and intermediate players, while Tuesday and Thursday mornings are reserved for advanced competitors.

For the uninitiated, pickleball is an American game invented in the 1960s that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It is played on a court the size of a badminton court and can be played as singles or doubles.

Many pickleball players come to the sport from other disciplines. Henry said pickleball is particularly appealing to those who have played tennis previously. It is similar, but doesn't require the same aggressive swing of the arm.


"I've been good at sports all my life," said Clark, a former racquetball player and a current semi-pro bowler. But, "At 60-something, you can no longer throw yourself around the court. Age takes its toll."

He said pickleball is ideal because it can be played at a high level of competitiveness, requiring finesse and mental strategy, but it is less stressful to the body than other court-based sports. Several of the players at the South Carroll center are over 80 years old, Eney said.

Clark and Henry agreed that the game has grown exponentially in the last few years, and the more players there are, the more people are available to play at a very high and competitive level.

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"They call it the fastest growing sport in America, especially among seniors," Clark said.

Henry said the sport enriches his day-to-day life in return for the many hours he puts into it. He said it has had physical benefits, helping him to stay active and mobile, and also social ones. "You get to meet so many good people," he said. "That's the spirit of pickleball; there's a lot of interaction in this game."

Clark said that the sport is both camaraderie and cut-throat competition — and that's a good thing.


"It allows people to regain the athletic competitiveness that they've had for years," Clark said. "It puts a lot of youth in your step again when you feel that you can compete at a pretty high level."