‘The Queen Mother’

Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: Marion Lisehora, right, is introduced to the crowd at Sea Colony last month by Bill Smallbrook, left.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: Marion Lisehora, right, is introduced to the crowd at Sea Colony last month by Bill Smallbrook, left.Marion Lisehora is not the average card-carrying AARP member. Then again, there wasn’t really anything average about Marion Lisehora before she was eligible to carry an AARP card anyway.

Since her youth, the D.C. native and long-time Millsboro resident has stolen the show in recreations ranging from softball and field hockey to swimming and soccer.

She’s won state championships in basketball, been part of a doubles balancing act with her late husband, Tony, while attending the University of Maryland—College Park, and even famously rode the “Diving Horse” off the Steel Pier in Atlantic City for four summers before taking the act to the Sunshine State.

For the last few years, however, and now approaching the equestrian-inhibiting age of 85, the only thing golden about this girl has been her Senior Olympics medals.

The mother of five, grandmother and, now, great-grandmother has been competing in the Senior games in volleyball since 1993 — medaling all the way — and eventually entered the pickleball ranks when the sport was added three years ago.

It’s on those pickleball courts that her nickname, “The Queen Mother,” was born.

“I call Marion ‘the Queen Mother of Pickleball’ because she is the very first one to support a new venue in the area, the first to support a tournament or a beginner’s clinic where we volunteer our time to help others,” said the First State Pickleball Club’s Vaughn Baker, the beginnings of a slight smirk drawing across his face before his next comment. “In fact, she’s first in everything except complaining about aches and pains.”

Gearing up for the Delaware Senior Olympics in Dover this September, Lisehora currently schedules her days around when and where she can play pickleball; often signing on for a morning session at one court before going on to play an afternoon set against some new competition at a different facility and even somehow sneaking in the occasional half-mile swim.

But, interestingly enough, Lisehora had no racket-sport background before cementing herself as the club’s matriarch; and it was actually a trip to nationals in Louisville, Ky., for volleyball back in 2007 that she first saw or had even heard of the sport.

“We were at nationals, and in the lobby area they had set up a pickleball court,” Lisehora recalled. “Nobody knew anything about pickleball back then. Georgia [Billger] and I picked up a couple of paddles and tried to do it. She picked it up fast. I was totally lost; I didn’t understand what they were talking about, but I gave it a try and it was fun.”

With a background in tennis, Billger began to introduce the game to the rest of the volleyball club upon returning to Delaware, first setting up a net in the parking lot of what was formerly Delmarva Christian High School in Georgetown, which has since become Sussex Academy.

There were an estimated 30 or 40 people out that day, curiously inspecting paddles and bending ears for direction on just what exactly is meant by “keep out of the kitchen”; and after some success and interest and growing numbers, the group eventually started branching out to new locations in Lewes and beyond.

All the while, Lisehora was teaching her senior women’s volleyball class and having trouble freeing herself for scheduled sessions.

It wasn’t for roughly two years, after Billger and fellow pickleball advocate Willa Jones got the figurative pickleballs rolling, in March of 2011, that Lisehora finally got her chance to get back in the literal swing.

“I was almost 80. I was going to turn 80 in September,” Lisehora said of the day that she and her daughter, Diane, went out for their first legitimate session.

A natural athlete and physical education teacher at East Millsboro Elementary School and other area schools for 31 years, Lisehora figured she’d pick up the sport in no time and would soon be “dink and rallying” with the best of them.

However, much to her surprise, and perhaps even more so to her flaring interest, what really fueled her newfound pickleball fire that day was the fact that she couldn’t hit a backhand.

“I would go to hit it, and I guess I had the paddle too flat, and it would go straight up or it would go spinning and it wouldn’t go over,” Lisehora recalled her first real lesson.

“It was the challenge. That’s all I needed. I was addicted from that moment on. I couldn’t wait to get back so I could work on it.”

Fast-forward five years, and not only has Lisehora most certainly conquered the backhand, but pickleball has exploded locally; going from 40 volleyball players in a parking lot to more than 400 members of the First State Pickleball Club alone, with other clubs spanning from Ocean Pines in Maryland, to Sawgrass in Rehoboth, Rookery Northern in Milford, the Kent County Rec Center in Dover and new ones popping up all the time.

Now 84, the “Queen Mother” is helping to lead the sport’s insurgence against the standard health debilitations of the average card-carrying AARP member, not only as a pickleball advocate and local figurehead, but as an instructor and motivator as well, which she said is one of her greatest passions.

“I still get so much pleasure out of seeing people learn how to do something,” she said. “No matter whether it’s pickleball or swimming or whatever, it’s built into me and I enjoy doing it.

“I’ve been healthy, and I attribute my health to the fact that I do play pickleball. It’s for anybody and it’s for any ability — despite whether you have a bad knee or a bad shoulder or whatever you have — there are other people of your own ability that are going to be out there.”

Lisehora will, of course, once again be headed to the regional games in Dover, scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 24, and Sunday, Sept. 25. It’s there that she hopes to qualify for nationals in Birmingham, Ala., in 2017, when she’ll be on her way to 86.

But while whether she can again bring home the gold remains to be seen, one thing is for sure.

“I don’t intend to stop playing. I won’t stop at my own free will,” she assured. “If you start a sport when you’re 80, you figure your athletic years are pretty well done. You’re not going to keep getting better like you do when you’re 15 — but that wasn’t true for me. I’m still getting better.”