Like many middle-aged men in the Cortez area, Dean Palmquist and Joe Strunce live wholesome lives that include families, jobs and numerous recreational activities.
Until earlier this summer, however, neither had participated in serious athletic competitions for decades.
Enter pickleball, a paddleball sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and table tennis. Although still under the radar in many communities, pickleball’s popularity has increased significantly in recent years.
Although neither Palmquist nor Strunce had been exposed to pickleball until a few years ago, both men had a background in racket sports and were seeking an athletic outlet and a way in which to keep their athletic juices flowing.
“I have a background in racquetball and I played ping-pong growing up,” Palmquist said. “I started playing pickleball a few years ago and I really enjoy it. It’s a fairly compressed game where instead of using a full arm motion, you’re using a lot of wrist action. It’s all about compressing shots.”
“A friend of (Palmquist) said they were putting pickleball courts (in Cortez), and once the courts opened, we came out here,” Strunce said when asked about his introduction into the sport. “It was last year that I started playing for the first time and I just loved it. I have a background in tennis from many years ago.”
Due to their combination of height, quickness and natural athleticism, Palmquist and Strunce quickly took to their new sport, and before long, both men solidified their status as two of the best players in the local community.
The duo’s competitive juices were never completely satisfied by recreational play, however, and after Strunce read a flyer advertising a tournament in Durango, he began thinking about competing alongside Palmquist in competitive tournaments.
“We had been playing pickleball at the rec center most of the winter and we thought that an in indoor tournament would be a great way to see where we were at,” Strunce said. “We entered an indoor tournament in Pagosa Springs in May to see how we would do.”
Although neither had ever competed in a pickleball tournament before, the pair’s quickness and shot-making ability immediately turned heads at the daylong event, and after several competitive matches, Strunce and Palmquist emerged victorious in the 11-team double-elimination tournament.
Strunce and Palmquist’s class and sportsmanship also made a positive impression at the Pagosa Springs tournament, which the duo described as a challenging and fun experience.
“Part of the challenge of tournament play is playing in a different environment,” Strunce said. “One of the courts (that we played on) had a wood floor and one had a rubber floor. You’re playing against people on the other side of the net who are focused on giving you the best competition that they can.”
Enthused by their success and eager to compete again, Palmquist and Strunce entered a tournament in Montrose and subsequently traveled to compete in the highly competitive outdoor tournament on the first weekend in June.
Playing host to players from Grand Junction, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, the Montrose tournament proved to be far more competitive than the tournament in Pagosa Springs, but again, Palmquist and Strunce played well and placed second overall in their 14-team division.
“We have quickness and height,” said Palmquist when asked about the key to his team’s success. “We can be very quick about capturing the front line, and at our level, a lot of players don’t get to that front line as quickly as they can. When we get to the front line, the probabilities of (the other team) getting the ball back are less.”
With two tournaments now under their belt, Palmquist and Strunce have found practice on Cortez’s pickleball courts to be even more exciting, and thanks to Strunce, several friendly shootout tournaments have been held in the local community.
According to Palmquist and Strunce, several local players attend the shootouts, which take place on Saturdays and generally feature friendly competition in a community atmosphere.
“People from Durango have joined and we’ve had 30 and 40 people at times (at the shootouts),” Strunce said. “We keep score and we keep track. The results are online and you can see how you’re doing.”
With several months left in the summer and plenty of time to play before the weather becomes cold, Palmquist and Strunce are planning to compete in at least two more tournaments before year’s end.
The first of those tournament will take place at the Durango Recreation Center Aug. 2-3, and the second will take place in Cortez Sept. 14-15.
Prior to their upcoming competitions, both Strunce and Palmquist are planning to practice at the Cortez pickleball courts several times during weekday evenings, and both men encouraged community members to stop by the courts any time.
“You don’t have to have a tremendous fitness level to (play pickleball),” Palmquist said. “We’ve had people come out who have started out on the heavy side, and we have older people who play.
“I think it’s an activity that is good for people who have had some injuries. Because you use so much wrist action, the risk of injury is lower.”
Individuals wishing to obtain more information about Cortez’s pickleball tournament or monthly pickleball lessons that take place at the Cortez Recreation Center are encouraged to stop by at any time.
In the meantime, local fans are encouraged to keep their eyes open for Palmquist and Strunce, who are well on their way to making a name for themselves at pickleball tournaments across Colorado’s Western Slope.