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The Making Of A Pickleball Champion

April 13, 2022 5 min read 1 Comment

The Making Of A Pickleball Champion

By Ray Glier

In eight years of playing pickleball, Dick Johnson, 81, has won 230 medals, including 136 gold medals. Two of those eight years he won Grand Slams, which is winning all six major tournaments in the same year.

When I come across an athlete so dominant, I have to look for the wellspring, the hidden hand, the abettor. There is usually something going on with these freakish jocks that has nothing to do with athleticism.

Johnson was a terrific tennis player in his youth and as a young adult before back surgery (a fusion) limited him. Former tennis players make terrific pickleball players because they adapt easily to the small-court game, but that’s not the explainer we’re looking for.

Maybe this has something to do with it…

….Johnson was 11 years old when neighborhood kids tied him to tree limbs 40 feet up. He hollered and screamed and when they let him down he still had companions, not enemies. That might be some of what makes him a tough out on the pickleball court. He had to endure some bullying and build resilience.

And maybe this helps explain the truckload of gold medals…

…Johnson’s family grew up on the north side of Boise, Idaho, which was the other side of the tracks, so to speak. His childhood bed was a rollout that was moved into the kitchen of the small apartment at night. It was walk-up living quarters for the family of seven, but in an hour-long interview Johnson didn’t once complain about scarcity. Mental toughness in a tough pickleball match can come from that experience.

We’re getting to the root of this man.
Is this it?…

…When he visited his grandparents, his grandfather, Alma Johnson, dug holes in the backyard of his home in Ogden, Utah for games of golf putting and never, ever let Johnson win, which built a competitiveness in the boy.

Johnson was a natural athlete—sure hands, quick feet, focused eyes—and he played sports with older kids, which is always a tip-off to an over-achiever. He was also a star in high school in multiple sports, so he had all kinds of range of motion from exercising different muscle groups.

Johnson is Mormon and as a teenager was excluded from the parties and intimacy of typical high school students, so you can detect a small chip on his shoulder left over from some of the shunning. It was not being vengeful. It just helped him bear down and practice self-reliance.

And his faith, that has something to do with his gold medal haul. We’ll get to that later in this story.

So here’s what we need to do…

…wrap it all up.

The tree incident, grandpa, modest upbringing. That helps explain one of the most accomplished senior pickleball players in the U.S. The journey translated into resilience, competitiveness, mental toughness, gratefulness for life’s gifts, and enduring faith.

Geezer Jocks 60, 70, 80, 90, you know what I’m explaining here.


Johnson, who still lives in Boise, will be off to the US Open Pickleball Championships in Naples, Fla., later this month. He will stay in the state until May 9 when the National Senior Games begin in Ft. Lauderdale. Age is slowing him down, but he will carry plenty of zeal to Florida.

“Physically, it’s getting harder with the back pain and the two knee surgeries, and I can’t play every day like I used to,” Johnson said. “But everybody’s got their stuff. That’s what happens at our age. The way I look at it the pain is worth it because if I wasn’t playing I wouldn’t be as healthy and I wouldn’t be living as long.

“And that’s the great blessing of the National Senior Games because of all the emphasis it puts on sports and activity and good health.”

Johnson has been known to put that good health in jeopardy with borderline recklessness chasing shots.

“I crashed and burned at the Huntsman Games,” he said.
He was an attempting an “Erne” by going outside the "kitchen” to swipe at a shot around the net. It was a forehand lunge at the ball. Nothing is unattackable for Johnson.

“I stumbled,” he said.

Johnson was 78. He broke his nose, shattered his glasses, required 12 stitches at the hospital to close a wound, and suffered a concussion. Johnson tried to insist he should keep playing—before the trip to the hospital—but David Jordan, the president of the Pickleball Association, came up to him and said, “Dick, you’re going to the hospital.”

“I had to settle for a silver,” Johnson said.

Which leads us to one of his strengths as a pickleball player: just showing up.
Johnson flew out of Utah the day after his calamity to Texas to play the Super Senior World Championships with a gruesome-looking face of stitches and bruising. He won two golds. Ten days after that he flew to Indian Wells for nationals and won gold.

“I guess my biggest strength is I’ve played through a lot of injuries, I’m able to handle pain pretty well,” Johnson said. “Back surgery finally made me quit playing serious competitive tennis and that still bothers me. Since I started playing pickleball, I’ve had two knee surgeries. I’ve had elbow surgery. I’ve had wrist surgery. I’ve had Achilles problems. And then I’m a diabetic with heart issues.

“So I just play through all of that.”

Johnson did not win in his 70s because of a lack of competition. The draws were usually stuffed with good players. His success had more to do with a) showing up and b) managed aggression.

Johnson is a patient hunter for the passing shot and the put-away. The industry standard for many players is to get the ball back across the net and not to commit unforced errors.

That’s what I see when I watch. The court is small, especially in doubles, so it is challenging to hit passing shots for winners, so you dink.

As an advanced player, Johnson abhors too much dinking, even at 81.

“It’s more a defensive game than tennis, the smartest thing is just hitting the ball back, and that’s why even in the pros you will see 25 to 30 strokes for a single point,” he said.
“I play more offensively than defensively. I go for the winners. I go for the lines. I go for the passing shots. The game is more fun that way.”

Johnson teaches pickleball for free and wouldn’t that be something for a new pickleball player to be taught by one of the most accomplished players in the history of the sport.

It’s one of the ways he gives back to a sport that has given him…life.
“Pickleball saved my life,” he said. “I hadn’t been doing much physically for 10-20 years and I was overweight and a diabetic. Then I found this game.”
The game is his passion, but it is not his obsession. His obsessions are his faith and his family.

Dick and his wife, Lawana, have four daughters. Three of them were state tennis champions. One of them played with Dick in a father-daughter tournament at the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament in Flushing Meadow, N.Y. Dick and Lawana have nine grandchildren, and eight have been on missions for the church.

“That’s the other thing that means a lot to me, our church, and my testimony of Jesus Christ, and spreading that message about the divinity of the Savior around the world,” Johnson said.

He gave up a college tennis scholarship at BYU—twice—because of his work with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Johnson is on another mission these days. And that is to arrive in Florida and chase more gold, be it on one leg or two, sore back, or not so-sore back. His ethos echoes

Thomas Edison, the founder of the research & development wing of big business, who said success was 90 percent perspiration, or the art of showing up. Dick Johnson shows up…with plenty of skill, too.

From Edison:

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

1 Response

Laura Mortensen
Laura Mortensen

July 15, 2022

Thank you for sharing all your success. I have enjoyed reading about your accomplishments.

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