Gary Resnikoff is a 70-year-old pickleball player who lives in Port Hueneme, CA. He has been playing pickleball for about eight years, and he has a remarkable story to tell. He discovered pickleball in Mexico, where he lived as an expat with his wife after retiring from the solar energy industry. He moved back to the US and continued to play and promote pickleball in Arizona, where he helped others improve their skills. He also faced a life-threatening challenge when he was diagnosed with three cancers, one in his arm, but he did not let that stop him from enjoying his passion.
Gary's pickleball journey began in San Carlos, Mexico, where he heard an odd sound coming from a gym. He rode his bike to the source and saw a small group of people playing pickleball. As a former competitive tennis player, he was intrigued by this sport and asked to join them. They welcomed him and let him hit a few balls. He was hooked. He bought some paddles and balls and convinced his HOA to convert one of their tennis courts into a pickleball court. He soon found himself in a group of players that loved the game and met 2-3 times a week. He even entered a tournament and had a great time, despite being outmatched by stronger opponents. He learned the game by trial and error, as there were not many instructional videos online at that time. His game improved as pickleball grew in San Carlos, and they eventually had an 8-court facility with many players, both locals and foreigners. He was able to compete with many of the younger players, even though he was well into his 60s.
He played so much that he developed what he thought was tennis elbow and tried various treatments, bands, and exercises to relieve the pain. About six years ago, Gary and his wife decided to move back to the US and chose a small town in Arizona near the border with Mexico so they could still visit their friends in San Carlos.
The town of Tubac was just discovering pickleball and only had one court and a temporary net that had to be checked out from the community center. There were only about 10-15 players, and it was uncertain when they would show up to play. Gary joined them and soon their group grew to over 30 players. They expanded from one court to two, and then to four. The competition also got better. Gary was fortunate to be one of the better players in the group, thanks to his experience in Mexico and years of tennis. He often helped others improve their games and gave them tips and feedback. He played almost every day, even though his tennis elbow was still bothering him. He even went back to San Carlos for a couple of tournaments with a group of players from Tubac. At that point, his tennis elbow was so bad that he could not hold his arm up between points. But he still managed to win a silver medal in the 3.5 men's division.
In February 2019, after returning from a tournament in San Carlos, Gary decided to try a different orthopedic specialist, as none of the previous ones had given him any relief. In fact, the pain was constant and excruciating. He walked in and described his pain, and the doctor said, without touching him or giving him another thought, "You have a tumor, go next door to the hospital and get an MRI. Now!"
Two hours later the Dr. confirmed he had what is called a Leiomyosarcoma and it was serious. And they sent the results to the Mayo clinic, and the following week he was in Phoenix for a consultation and further testing. Turns out it was big and in addition to the tumor he also had Non Hodgkin's Lymphoma and another ever more rare cancer called Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia. Soon he was scheduled for radiation, surgery and chemo therapy. Gary went into surgery as a right-hander not sure if he would come out as a lefty or without an arm. He got lucky. They saved the arm but he's now a left-hander.
After he recovered from surgery, he was allowed back on the courts but had to learn to do everything left handed. At first he couldn’t even use the right arm at all. Couldn’t even hold the ball for a serve. The surgery took care of the sarcoma and chemo knocked out the NHL. The Waldenstroms was something that was incurable but wasn’t causing any issues.
David, a friend from Tubac was heading down to San Carlos a couple months later for a tournament and needed a partner. He was relatively new to pickleball and asked Gary to partner with him in a 3.0 tournament. Gary thought he was taking pity on him but still agreed to play. Bald from head to toe from chemo and between treatments they traveled down to play. Gary admits he stunk. He was essentially one handed at the time and figured out that he needed to do a drop serve and fortunately in those days the rules said if you were handicapped you could employ a drop serve. Their opponents in one of the matches even tried to call the ref over to tell Gary that it wasn’t allowed. But it was. Somehow his friend Dave and Gary eked out a silver medal and he is forever grateful to Dave for pushing him to play. He was depressed about cancer but more about not being as skilled player anymore. Gary worked hard to get to some level of competence but was now losing to players he had taught to play.
To illustrate his love of the game, Gary even wrote a novel (his second murder mystery) centered around the game. It's called Killing The Royals: A Pickleball Murder Mystery, and it allowed him to talk about the game he loves and even have some fun writing a murder mystery. When it came out this past year on Amazon and his new friends in Port Hueneme bought it, he was thrilled. When they asked him to sign copies, he was nervously thrilled as he still hadn't mastered the art of writing left-handed. He was over the top proud when they said they liked it, even if they were just being kind to him.
The players in Port Hueneme have been great in indulging him while he's become a decent 3.5-4.0 player who can even give the 4.0+ guys a decent game. He likes to tease them that his best shot is what he calls the Anna Leigh. His right hand has recovered enough to support a pretty wicked two-handed backhand that may not be the weapon she has, but it works for him. He likes to say his backhand is 4.0+ and his forehand is 3.0.
His tip to anyone playing is to not take it too seriously. Have fun. Life is short. He likes to think he's fun to play with or against. The group Gary plays with love to trash talk, but in a fun way. Nothing too mean.
People laugh when he says he's a lucky guy. Hard to believe it coming from a guy with three forms of cancer and one is incurable, but he means it. He gets to play a game 3-4 times a week with a bunch of great people. He generally wakes up happy and tries to have a smile for just about anyone.
Gary's story is an inspiration to anyone who loves pickleball and faces challenges in life. He shows that pickleball is more than just a sport, it is a way of life. It is a source of joy, friendship, and growth. It is a challenge, a reward, and a passion. It is a lifeline, a miracle, and a blessing. Gary Resnikoff is a pickleball enthusiast who survived three cancers, and he is a living proof that pickleball can change your life for the better.