May 28, 2022 4 min read 1 Comment
By Ray Glier
She walked with a limp which, it turned out, was from a torn calf muscle. She didn’t look fast on her feet, to begin with, so when you took a passing glance at Yvonne Smart, 65, you thought, “She’s not long for this pickleball tournament against these bangers.”
Then she hit the ball. Then another. Smart didn’t need to be coddled because of the injury, after all.
Whenever she drew back the paddle, she took it straight through the plastic ball. She hit it dead center and she finished her stroke, a follow-through that put jets on the ball and took it to its intended target. Over and over Smart did this. She didn’t mishit one ball in the mixed double match, so precise was her stroke. The bangers were on their heels, not Smart, herself a banger, not a dinker.
It was rhapsody with the racquet, a clinic on mechanics.
At the National Senior Games, Smart won a gold in Division I women’s singles against four competitors, then won gold with Margaret Ludwig in more competitive women’s doubles. She and her partner, Franz Roland, took just a bronze in the mixed doubles after a hilariously blown call by the opponents in the semifinals.
She hung around for the Table Tennis tournament on that sore wheel and was pretty good with the smaller paddle, too. Smart got a bronze in women’s doubles in ping pong.
I am not weighed down by objectivity here. It’s hard being objective when someone so obviously injured is competitive. There were not a ton of players here in 65+, but even in a more robust field Smart, a 4.5, would still be a pretty slick player.
Yet the success with injury is not the most defining, or remarkable, thing about her.
It’s her heart. That defines her.
Several years ago she donated a kidney to a friend of her son’s. Yvonne saw him one day lying in bed hooked up to dialysis and dying. He was being raised by a single mom, a member of the same church. Smart went and got tested to see if she was a match. She was a perfect match.
I said to myself ‘This is meant to be’,” and she became an organ donor to someone not in her family.
“No regrets,” she said.
If Yvonne had been thinking about herself, and not the kid with most of his life in front of him, she would have understood as we get older our kidney function depletes and two kidneys are certainly better than one. Think about an athlete, like Yvonne, on her feet and moving quickly. Injuries happen, like a torn calf muscle. Analgesics, or pain relievers, reduce blood flow to the kidneys and are not recommended for some people, like people with one functioning kidney.
She shrugs. There is still no gridlock over the decision, just peace of mind.
Smart was more mindful of this young person’s odds, which were slim, than hers. There are 100,000 people on a waiting list for an organ transplant. Each day, 17 people die waiting for an organ transplant. Every nine minutes someone is added to the list.
The transplant is actually why Yvonne stopped playing tennis and picked up pickleball. Tennis was too grueling after the surgery. Pickleball was more manageable.
“I used to dink,” she said about her early forays into pickleball.
Now, it’s a pure power game. Her backhand is ok. If it was better she would be rated a 5.0.
Her consistent follow-through is the end product of the eye and hand in sync.
How good is Smart’s hand-eye? She was a professional painter and she didn’t use tape to keep the paint off those edges where it wasn’t supposed to go. She could do a straight line free hand without the tape most of the rest of us need.
What is uncanny is how Smart basically stopped playing ping pong last year to do pickleball and then showed up at the National Senior Games and won a medal in ping pong. She played very little table tennis the last year and was still fit enough to get a medal.
It helps, of course, to have a national-caliber coach in their Maryland house. Jeff Smart, her husband, grew up on the game. He was a member of a U.S. Junior national team and was the captain for two U.S. collegiate teams at the World University Championships.
As far as pickleball, Coach Smart knows a good player when he sees one. His wife, he insists, has skills.
For you enthusiasts this is what it takes, as per Coach Smart:
You wonder with athletes where the skill comes from, nurture or nature. There is no obvious connection in Smart’s background about her deftness with a pickleball paddle. Her parents have never seen her play, as a youth or adult. Her brothers and sisters could not be shamed to come out of the house and play…anything.
“I guess I was just born with it,” she said when asked about her hand-eye and reflexes.
“I wanted to get out of the house and play sports. I hung around friends that would play different sports and that’s how it started.”
You wonder where athletic skill comes from and you wonder where a big heart comes from. How does it start? Is it an epiphany that causes a swelling?
“Just knowing a person is dying, a person lying there is dying, it is something to see, it’s real,” Smart said. “They are hooked up to a dialysis machine and they are dying.”
The hospital transplant watchdogs put Yvonne through tests and tests, not just physical, but psychological. They wanted to make sure she wasn’t getting paid and that her mind was right and there was no coercion. The process took a year. The kid hung on.
I struggle too much with not being open-minded. Accept possibilities, like how Smart, the non-athlete looking athlete, can play. I mean, we can’t see her heart, but we damn well know it’s in there. Trust that there is something we can't see on the surface in people. Dig deeper and be surprised.
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