Category Archives: Kissimmee, Florida

Pickleball makes a dink shot among sports lovers…

Pickleball, Pickleball, how I love the game,/Pickleball, Pickleball, what a silly name/ When I play, every day, my body is in pain/ But you know, I can’t stop, unless it starts to rain!! (Parody sung to tune of O Chanukah!)

What? You haven’t heard of pickleball! Have you been living under a marinated mushroom?

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. According to the USA Pickleball Association, there are over 3.2 million pickleball players in the United States alone, 5,000 indoor and outdoor courts in the United States; and at least one location in all 50 states.The game is being introduced to kids and teenagers in physical education classes in middle and high schools.

Pickleball was the brainchild of former Washington State representative Joel Pritchard. Summer, 1965, he and two friends came home from golf to three bored families. Their attempt to play badminton was thwarted by the fact that a shuttlecock was no where to be found. Undaunted, they retrieved a Whiffle ball, improvised some paddles with some plywood, and lowered the badminton net to compensate.  His wife Joan dubbed the game “pickleball” after the “Pickle Boat” in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats

Although pickleball languished in obscurity for almost fifty years, that all changed when Baby Boomers began to retire. Many “seniors”  still wanted to compete and win at a sport but lacked their youthful running abilities According to an article on the AARP website, pickleball, which  combined elements of badminton, tennis, and table tennis, filled that need. Games usually last 10 to 15 minutes, so players can take frequent breathers. Since the court is small and most people play doubles, there’s no serious running — making it easier on the knees. The lightweight paddle and plastic ball reduces the chances of tennis elbow; having two people on the team reduces the area of play. 

My husband Larry picked up the game when he turned 65 and joined Southern Saratoga YMCA in Clifton Park [New York].  Larry had been involved in sports his entire life—basketball, baseball, and track in his youth and running and cycling as an adult. In pickleball, he has found camaraderie as well as the ability—to quote Jimmy Buffet—“to grow older but not up.” He has participated in several tournaments but prefers to play for the exercise, the fun, and the socialization. During the summer, Larry plays with the Summit County pickleball league in Colorado. As the group plays at over 9100 feet, their tee shirts proudly proclaim, “We Play With An ALTITUDE!”

When we moved to Florida, one of Larry’s  requirements was that the community had an active pickleball presence. Solivita, which is isted by www.55.com as one of the top five 55+ communities for pickleball, has seventeen outdoor  courts. The Smashers, the largest sports club in Solivita, has over 1000 members and growing. Along with hosting the Polk Senior Games, the club also holds Sadie Hawkins, Halloween, and Yearling (new players) games. 

Tom Leva, the Smasher’s president, first played the game in pickleball in 2007. After moving to Solivita in 2008, Tom, who had a history of heart problems, lost 40 pounds and was soon playing the game competitively and teaching new players. Although reoccurring cardiac issues has curtailed his game, he has remained on the board and has been behind the expansion and improvements of the pickleball courts. 

When they moved to Solivita in 2015, Dave and Patti “Smith” were tennis players who were not going to ever play that silly game called pickleball.  After their neighbors gave them paddles and took them out to play, they soon became self-professed pickleball addicts.  They enjoy sharing their love of the game with others and meeting so many interesting people. Patti is looking forward to playing in the Florida Senior Games in December.

Sandie and Howie Vipler, fellow YMCA pickleballers, recognized soon after picking up the game in 2012 that Clifton Park lacked outdoor courts. Howie reached out to Phil Barrett, the town supervisor, who agreed to fund painting pickleball lines on  some of the town tennis courts. They have moved themselves and  their equipment to Virginia, where they continue to play almost every day. 

Meanwhile, Sandie, who has a sports resume that includes downhill skiing, kayaking, cycling, and golfing, regards pickleball as her favorite. She plays pickleball 5 to 6 days a week for 2 to 3 hours a day. She revels in the compliments she gets from new competitors, including “You play tall for a short person” and “Wow, look at the wheels on her!” At 68 years old, Sandie vows that she will be playing until she can no longer walk.

That hasn’t stopped Brenda Taylor. Brenda had to have a leg amputated after a 1998 motorcycle accident and desperately wanted to find a way to get exercise while in her wheelchair. Except for an extra bounce before returning the serve, the rules are basically the same. Her proudest moment playing the game is when people compliment on her backhand shot. 

Mel Toub had played tennis and racquetball in his youth. Now in his late sixties and facing health challenges, he has mixed those two sports with pickleball. “Pickleball has wide appeal to both folks who used to play racket sports in their youth and to seniors who wish to remain active but no longer have the stamina or physical ability to play more demanding sports like basketball, soccer, and tennis,” said Mel.   “The learning curve to play pickleball at a socially acceptable level is fairly quick, so pickleball becomes a route to a new activity and new sets of friends.”

The game is growing internationally, with many European and Asian countries adding courts. Personal friends from England, Wales, and Canada have gotten hooked on the game after playing in Florida, Rob Harvey located an indoor pickleball facility near his home in Barhead, Alberta. “The game is great for eye-hand coordination. It keeps me  limber and helps the joints.” Pickleball also helps him keep in shape for his  summer baseball league.

Lynda and Steve Gorwill from Wales fell in love with the game after playing the game while on vacation in Florida. Last year, Lynda applied for and received a grant from Wales’ sports council to establish a pickleball league in her town. Although she has had roles in an English soap opera, Lynda still considers one of her proudest moments  was winning a silver medal in her first pickleball tournament in Abingdon Oxforshire, England.

Margaret and Peter Hunter were “kitted” with paddles and balls while visiting Larry and me in Solivita last November. “Within two minutes we were captivated, line, hook and sinker.” They are looking to returning to our area for another American Thanksgiving and another month of pickleball and miss it when they are at home in England. 

Not that pickleball doesn’t come with its hazards. Sharon and Rick McKelvey both ended up with torn meniscus surgery after a year of playing at Solivita. “That wasn’t fun,” said Sharon, another admitted addict,  “but it didn’t stop us from returning to the game.” Debbie Pratt broke a vertebra in her back after she took a bad fall moving backwards to return one of Larry’s volleys. She no longer plays pickleball, but her injury certainly didn’t scare off other women in her RV resort on the West Coast of Florida, who are appropriately called  “The Sweet Pickles.”

Marta Groess, a lifelong athlete and a member of Smashers, says that the most important feature of the game is that it is FUN! “I  tell new players that if they aren’t laughing, they aren’t playing the game right.”

Linda Kuhn, the Smasher’s treasurer, hadn’t played a sport since high school but now she is addicted, sometimes playing 2 to 4 hours in the Florida heat. “Pickleball gives me such a sense of contentment,, Linda said. The game  has reaffirmed my decision that as I age, I am going out with a roar!”

Is pickleball a Jewish game. Well, it certainly isn’t called “kosher pickle” ball! Until that happens, many people-Jews and non-Jews alike—can find America’s favorite new sport fun. 

Originally published in The Jewish World. October 4, 2018

Beating the Odds

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Tony Handler (Courtesy of Jack Hall, Tony’s Grandson)

Eric Lagerstrom, a 29 year old from Gresham, Oregon, may have been the official male top finisher in the 2018 St. Anthony’s Triathlon, which was held on a beautiful April day in St. Petersburg, Florida. However, in the pack of over 3000 participants was an individual that many considered the true winner. Seventy-nine year old Tony Handler had completed his 300th triathlon since his “terminal” diagnosis thirty-five years earlier. “I beat Mr. Cancer again,” said Tony with satisfaction.

Waiting at the finish line, as she had done almost every time before, was his wife, Narda, his childhood sweetheart from Newark, New Jersey. “I think I missed only five races in his entire triathlon career,” said Narda

None of this seemed it would be possible thirty-five years earlier. In 1983 Tony was driving Narda and friends home from an evening out when he was seized by excruciating abdominal pains.  His friend took over the wheel and drove Tony directly to the hospital. The doctors in the emergency room determined that his stomach had ruptured and immediately operated.

Death Around the Corner?

Two days after the surgery, Tony was transferred to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. The doctors there gave the Handlers the devastating news: Tony  had pancreatic cancer and had at best two more years to live.

Tony, who was forty-five,  refused to accept the diagnosis. After several more surgeries, he was chosen to participate in clinical trials at NIH with nineteen other patients who shared his rare form of cancer.  A willing “human guinea pig,” Tony endured hours of medical protocols, innumerable experimental drug treatments,  and seven surgeries.

While undergoing the  regimen, Tony saw an article that stated  the city of Baltimore was hosting the Bud Lite Triathlon in July 1985.   “I  thought this would be a good way for me to fight the bleak prognosis.” 

Against the Odds!

Tony was not new to athletic competitions. Born in 1939 in Newark, New Jersey, to first generation Jewish  parents, he had participated in Weequahic High School’s cross country and swim teams, serving as the latter’s captain.

Cheering him on in the stands was Narda Mandell. Shortly after his bar mitzvah at Congregation B’Nai Jeshrun in Newark, Tony had met twelve-year-old Narda and they soon became a couple. “I was—and still am—his biggest fan,” said Narda.

After Narda completed high school and Tony completed his stint in the army, Tony and Narda were married on September 27th, 1959. Narda worked as a receptionist in a bank until their first son was born.

 In 1960, Tony was hired by IBM and spent the next 12 years working and going to Rutgers at night to earn a business degree.  Tony received a promotion to IBM’s  to its Washington DC office, and they moved to Crofton, Maryland, to be closer to the company’s Washington office. In 1983, they were living what appeared to be an idyllic life when their world was turned upside down.

Tony was determined to survive. He set his goal to compete in the 1985 Bud Lite Triathlon. Initially, he could only do a slow walk/run.  As his stamina increased, he began running two, five, ten miles. “Running made me feel as if I were fighting back,” said Tony. He dusted off his bike and rode the Maryland countryside. He found a local pool, donned goggles and a Speedo, and began swimming competitive laps for the first time since his high school swim team days. 

The Main Competition

On July 1, 1985,  Tony completed the Baltimore triathlon, which combined a one mile swim, 24.8 miles of bicycling and 6.2 miles of running. Tony was far behind the winning time of one hour and 55 minutes, but he had won a personal victory. “I only had one competitor,” said Tony, “and that was Mr. Cancer.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Cancer wasn’t done with Tony. He faced multiple bouts with six different kinds of cancer, including pancreatic, liver, prostate, and skin cancers, and twenty-one surgeries. 

Through it all, Tony continued his job as an IBM consultant. The management at the company were supportive, never hesitating in giving the time he needed to have the multiple surgeries and finish his recovery. After work and on weekends he continued to work out and participate in triathlons across the United States. “I needed victories wherever I could find them,” said Tony. “Every time  I crossed that finish line, I felt like I beat Mr. Cancer again.”

The Marathon Continues

In 1988 Tony received a promotion to senior consultant and was transferred to Tampa, Florida, where he continued to compete.

By the time he was approaching his sixtieth birthday, Tony had completed 200 triathlons. He set his goal even higher by signing up for the 2000 Florida Ironman Triathlon.  A back injury that was unrelated to cancer forced him to cancel. But in 2001, he completed the Panama City-based competition, which was composed of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2 mile run. He felt such a sense of accomplishment, he did again when he was 62.

When he retired from IBM in 2003, Tony and Narda moved to Solivita, a 55 plus active adult community located in Central Florida. 

Playing It Forward

As a cancer survivor, Tony was determined to “pay it forward.” Soon after their move, he organized the first annual community-wide three mile walk/run in Solivita to raise money for the American Cancer Society (ACS). Beginning in 2012, several Solivita clubs joined together to establish an annual Relay for Life event that supported ACS. Tony’s run/walk was folded into the community’s umbrella fundraising efforts. As of 2018, the combined efforts have raised over $700,000, of which $60,000 was raised by Tony’s walk/run event.

His story of survival and his fundraising have earned Tony state and national recognition. In 2013, Tony qualified to compete in the National Triathlon Age Group Championship in Milwaukee. At the concluding banquet, Tony was given  an award for being the  “Most Inspirational Athlete.” In 2015, Tony qualified to represent the United States on Team USA at the World Age Group Triathlon Championship in Chicago.  

In 2016, Tony was the recipient of the  “Geriathlete” award at the Growing Bolder Awards banquet in Orlando, Florida. He, along with other Central Florida seniors, was lauded for  “pursuing his passions and living lives of purpose while making a difference in the lives of others.    

Determination and Exercise

Sadly, Tony is the only surviving participant of the twenty original participants in the 1983 NIH clinical trials. Doctors at the Moffitt Cancer Center continue  to track Tony’s progress and oversee his life-saving medications and monthly chemo injections. His remarkable medical history has been the subject in professional journals and conferences. Researchers agree that what Tony often calls his “crazy exercise routine”appears to have been a factor in his longevity.

Along with their busy life in Central Florida, the Handlers enjoy the pleasure of three sons, one living in Maryland and the other two in Florida with their wives and five grandchildren. 

Tony views the St. Anthony’s Triathlon as another victory against Mr. Cancer, a fight he hopes to continue waging for as long as his body is able to.

“I beat the odds,” said Tony. “I just hope my story is an inspiration to other cancer patients to “NEVER GIVE UP.” 

Handlers

Narda and Tony Handler

A present-day Shabbos goy in Kissimmee

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Cindy and Ruben Vazquez own Bellissimo Hair Salon in Kissimmee, Florida.

As I settled into my chair at the Shalom Club table at Solivita Club Expo, I put my pocketbook on the empty chair from the Bellisimo Hair Salon which was located next us. A few minutes later, a young Hispanic man asked me to move it so he could sit down.

“Hope you don’t mind,” he said.

“No problem!” I said. It’s your chair. And I put the bag on the floor.

A Shanda!

“It would be a “shanda” to put that nice bag on the floor!” he exclaimed.

I took a closer look at the speaker. He certainly looked Hispanic, not someone who is familiar with the Jewish word for shame or disgrace!

“Shanda!” I said. “Are you…errrr..are you Jewish?”

“No,” he said. “Better than that! I was a Shabbos goy on Long Island!”

For those who are not familiar with the term, a “Shabbos goy” is the Yiddish term for a non-Jew who performs certain types of work which Jewish religious law prohibits the Jew from doing on the Sabbath. And Ruben Vazquez, the son of Puerto Rican parents who came to New York in the 1960s is a self-acclaimed proud Shabbos goy!

A Warm Welcome

Ruben’s parents were born in Yabucoa Puerto Rico, and came to the Bronx in 1952 .  Ruben, their only child, was born in 1972. Ruben’s father, Ruben Vazquez Baez, was a professor of administration at City College in New York as well as a high school teacher at Park West on 50th St Manhattan. His mother, Gilda Vazquez was a supervisor at the Bank of America at the World Trade Center.

When Ruben was six, his family moved to Bayswater in Far Rockaway, Queens, on the border line of Long Island. At first, the Vasquez family was apprehension when they realized they were the only Hispanics—and the only non-Jews—in a modern Orthodox neighborhood. The first week they lived there, however, Mrs. Weiss brought them a pie. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” the rabbi’s wife exclaimed.

Ruben became friends with many of the children in the neighborhood. He remembers his friends and him using the yarmulkes as Frisbees. “The adults would not have been happy if they realized our game,” said Ruben.

 Learning the Rules

Ruben also began learning the complexities of the dietary laws. One day, he wandered into a friend’s garage while munching on a roast beef and cheese sandwich.

“Do you want half my sandwich?” Ruben asked his friend.

“No thanks,” his friend replied. “We don’t mix milk with meat.”

Ruben took the cheese off half the sandwich and offered the revised snack to his friend.

“Err…no thanks, Ruben,” said his friend. “I’ll pass.”

To earn money, Ruben started mowing lawns for his neighbors. He made more friendships and learned more about the “black hats.” They began to rely on him.

 A New Job

One Saturday, one of his friend’s mothers knocked on the Vasquez’ door. “Ruben, Moishe left the television set on in the upstairs bedroom. Do you think you could take care of it for me?”

Ruben gladly went over to turn off the set. Soon after, other Jews in the neighborhood were knocking on his door, discreetly mentioning hinting at some task that Ruben could “remedy.” His reputation as the Shabbos goy was set.

Meanwhile, Ruben was picking up many of the Yiddish expressions that peppered the conversations of his neighbors. They flowed off his tongue as easily as those who spoke the language of the “Old Country” regularly. He not only avoided sharing his sandwiches, but also understood the traditions that governed his adopted community.

 Cosmetology

When Ruben was going into is senior year of high school, his father asked him what he would like to study after his graduation.

“Cosmetology,” was Ruben’s quick reply. He had a great uncle and an aunt who were in the business, and Ruben had spent a great deal of time in their shops. “You can do anything you want—after college,” his father told him.

His first two years at Queens Borough Community College, Ruben studied liberal arts with a self-admitted minor in “looking for girls.” By his junior year, however, Ruben realized that he was interested in religion. A Catholic raised in a community of Jews, he completed a bachelors in theology. Over the next few years, he was involved in missionary work and even did some Pentecostal tent revival meetings. In between all of this, he got his certificate in cosmetology from the State of New York under an apprenticeship program.

He soon met Cindy Peguero, a transplant from Florida who also had a cosmetology degree. The two of opened two salons in Five Towns, Woodmere and Bensonhurst (Ragtime Brooklyn). They were also professors at Academy of Career Training and used their expertise to become platform artists and educators around the world , including Paris, England, Italy, Japan Thailand, South and Central America.

Jewish Clientele Again

In their shops in Woodmere, Ruben and Cindy catered to their modern Orthodox clientele. Ruben became an expert at cutting the hair and beards of the Orthodox men. He knew how to follow the Jewish rules on shaving, which were based on Leviticus: “You shall not round the corners of your head, neither shall you mar the corners of your beard (19:27)” .This involved very specific guidelines on how to shave the back of the neck and under the chin. Although most of the men didn’t wear payot, the long sidecars or sidelocks, the hair could not be cut above a certain spot on the cheekbone. Ruben could not work on the women’s hair (“That was a shanda!” said Ruben). That job fell to Cindy , worked with the women to cut their natural hair and fix their wigs.

Move to Florida

Ten years ago, Ruben’s parents retired and moved to Kissimmee, Florida. Ruben, Cindy, and their two children were spending more and more time in Florida. The visits increased when Ruben’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. The Vasquez’ decided to move south to be close to both their families. Ruben’s mother passed away in 2010. Ruben’s father has since remarried.

In 2016, Cindy and Ruben opened up Bellissimo’s, a salon down the street from a fifty-five community. They no longer are taking care of the modern Orthodox, but people from Solivita—many of them Jewish—have become their customers.

“Baruch HaShem!” said Ruben. With G-d’s help, my business will continue to grow!”

Originally published in The (Capital District) Jewish World, February 8, 2018