From Reluctant Pickleball Beginnings to Fierce Competitor: An Interview with Nicole Cooper

From Reluctant Pickleball Beginnings to Fierce Competitor: An Interview with Nicole Cooper

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nikki to discuss her journey through the pickleball community, her playing style, and the profound impact the sport has had on her life.

To kick off the interview I thought let’s keep it light with some pickleball talk! So I asked how she would describe her style of play. She immediately smiles, laughs, then mumbles something I can’t quite make out.

I say, “What?”

While still laughing she says, “Agro – Aggressive!”

If you have met Nikki on the court, you know - although she is giggling in the interview - this isn’t an exaggeration. Her passion to compete and grind through a point is second to no one.

Incredibly, the agro personality on the court is the yang to her yin style off the court. To spend any time with Nikki is to fall in love with her big smile, incredible personality and giving heart. In the world of pickleball, where competitiveness meets camaraderie, there are players like Nikki who embody the spirit of the game both on and off the court.

My favorite question to ask any pickleball player is when did you first play pickleball? Everyone remembers! So, I ask Nikki, how did you find pickleball?  She replies,

“My parents! Both my parents are athletes and compete in pickleball tournaments. I wasn’t in a good place in 2019 working like a dog while being a single mom with two young girls. I don’t want to play it’s so stupid! Zero interest. I would rather go to the gym and run on the treadmill! They bring me out to the park. I get my ass whooped! I started summer of 2019 and just never stopped. Then I started meeting all these people. They were all so nice! Towards the end of 2019 I watched an exhibition with pickleball regional pickleball pros and thought I can do that!”

I love that she transformed from reluctant pickleball beginnings in 2019 to a fierce competitor and winning two nationals! Nikki's journey is one of resilience and growth. She prefers tournament play over rec play, but her journey to the top of podiums hasn’t been easy.  She tells me, 

“During Covid in 2020 I would just find a wall and hit the ball. Just dinking on the wall forever, then all of a sudden I was winning tournaments. Obviously there has been a lot of tears, grit and grind in between that, but I am a seer, doer. It’s hard going to big tournaments thinking you are prepared then you get there and don’t win a single game. It can be tough. I just went for it!”

Back in August of 2021 Nikki wrote a Facebook post. Here is an excerpt of that post:

“I was a 35-year-old career woman, athlete, mother of two little girls, independent FORCE, and here I was crying on the grass after I lost. Snot running down the nose crying. Context is important😊 I bleed athleticism, and yet, here I was on a court I thought I had prepared for not performing. I wanted to quit pickleball when I left that tournament. Tournament after tournament I showed up a little better each time, waiting for the led legs and nerves to kick in. Recently, the bad ones didn’t come, only the good ones, the ones that make you happy, feel alive, playing the sport that saved your life. I say all of this because I don’t want anyone to quit. In life, or in pickleball. Just keep moving your feet, keep breathing, keep remembering how much you belong.”

The courage to keep going back after being humbled at her first big tournament comes from her unrelenting work ethic and 20-year military career. She has briefed commanders and generals; and spoken and taught in front of thousands of people. How can you brief generals then be so nervous hitting a wiffle ball?!

We have all had a bad day or two on the pickleball court and in that moment shout, I quit! I’m done playing pickleball.  But no one ever quits, do they? I ask her why she didn’t quit after that tournament.  She replied,

“Because I feel so good, whether I had a shitty session or not. I feel so good getting out and moving my body. Pickleball helps me be more tolerable of people.  In the military I don’t have to have a such big tolerance. I’ve been taught to just DO, to get the mission done. People are cool - on the pickleball court – I don’t know about outside of that.”

Then the big grin shows again. She tells me her whole family plays - her parents, her sisters, her daughters - they are all playing pickleball now!  Nikki continues,  "I have met thousands of amazing people through pickleball and maybe two assholes. Amazing community and amazing friends. Most pickleball players toe the line and keep the assholes in a corner and are like, no that doesn’t belong here. Keep the game clean, but you will always have a few bad apples.  I truly believe “Pickleball Saved my Life!” I love the saying! I tell everybody that I meet that this sport is rad and saved my life!”

Today pickleball is Nikki’s way of life. She has more balance in her life. She is healthier and happier than before pickleball. She says,

“I am not giving up my pickleball for anyone but my daughters. On days I feel like I am going to lose it, I just have to text my pickleballers. The group texts are great! Some people don’t appreciate a pickleball group text, I do!”

Nikki might be the only person I have ever met that loves a pickleball group text!

As our interview draws to a close she reflects on her own struggles and triumphs, she urges others not to give up, both in pickleball and in life. She says, “I am so glad I didn’t quit. I am baffled how this sport saved me, and continues to save me.”

And, in case you were wondering, she isn’t nervous anymore. She says, “bring it!”

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