Ron Miyamoto loves tennis. So he doesn't let a little thing like an ischemic stroke, suffered in 2008 and partially paralyzing his left side, keep him from playing the game — with a little help from friends.
"My passion was tennis before my stroke," Miyamoto says. "Even during rehabilitation in the hospital, one of my activities was hitting the tennis ball with the therapist. The first thing I wanted to do after leaving the hospital was to be on the tennis courts again."
Thanks to his neighbor, 88-year-old Ogden Kellogg, and a bunch of other tennis aficionados who live in the Gold Hill and Sams Valley areas, Miyamoto often gets out on the court two or three times a week.
Unlike many municipal tennis courts in Small Town America, the two courts in this city's sports park — by the Rogue River just east of downtown — get regular use. In large part, that is because of the example set by a group of players, including Miyamoto and Kellogg, who play there for several hours three mornings a week. For this group, tennis is less about competition than about community and recreation.
Every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday morning (when it's not raining or snowing) at least some of the 20 or so players on the group's email list show up to play in a rotation devised so each player has a different doubles partner for each game. If only four or five players show up, they use just one court, but if more come, they rotate through both courts.
Cindy Darnell and husband Carl have been playing on the Gold Hill courts since being invited by Miyamoto shortly after the courts were resurfaced. Darnell soon took on the chore of chief organizer. She calls and emails reminders about changes in starting times and often brings home-baked treats to share.
"Over time, we have become a community of people who have learned to love and respect each other as much for our differences as for the love of the game of tennis," Darnell says. "We have been there for each other in so many ways. Three of our players lost their wives to long-term illness, so we made sure that three days a week they had an opportunity to hit a ball and feel better about life."
Each doubles game is contested, sometimes fiercely, but when that game is over, the players rotate and another game begins. Nobody keeps track of who wins the most games, and players of all different skills levels compete together, mostly harmoniously.
When Miyamoto and his wife, Keiko, first moved to Sardine Creek Road in the late 1970s, he would sometimes play on the Gold Hill courts, originally built by Jackson County and then deeded to the city many years ago when the city park was organized. But the courts were in such bad shape — with big cracks running through them and grass growing up through the cracks — that Miyamoto, Kellogg and others more often played on courts in other cities.
Then, in the early 2000s, the board of the Gold Hill Community Development Organization, affectionately known as the "Can-Do Club," decided the old tennis courts needed resurfacing and began raising the money needed to "get 'er done." The group applied for and won grants to encourage a lot of local donations, and in 2005 the courts were resurfaced.
As a result, tennis was reborn as a recreational activity for Gold Hill-area residents. Kellogg admits to being one of the larger donors but won't say how much he contributed. The octogenarian grew up in a tennis family that still owns a large tennis center in La Jolla, Calif., and he has played the game since age 6.
Miyamoto, 68, enjoys a special role in the group. Because of his physical limitations, he doesn't rotate but stays about 10 feet from the net on one side of a court with one or two partners backing him up.
"When playing tennis, I put weight on my left (weaker) leg and move my good, right leg to the right and left for lateral movement," Miyamoto says. "This helps me with my balance and strengthens my core and leg muscles. I place my left arm in a pocket of a special vest Keiko made for me to support my arm and protect my shoulder."
The other players often hit the balls sharply right at Miyamoto, but his reflexes and tennis skills are still intact, and the balls usually come flying back across the net.
Darnell says of Miyamoto: "Ron stays in one place, and we rotate around the court, so he gets to play with everyone. He holds his own and enjoys keeping it competitive. Right after his stroke, he was happy just to be on the courts. Now, he looks forward to improving his game."
Darnell says she is inspired by the dedication of both Miyamoto and Kellogg and their devotion to the game. "I no longer feel sorry for myself if my trick knee gives me pain, or I'm extra tired. All I have to do is look across the court at either Ron or Ogden and know that they don't make excuses in the face of extreme physical impairment or age. I think about them both on and off the court and feel great joy and love having them in my life."
Carl Darnell is equally inspired by Miyamoto and Kellogg. "Seeing how much playing tennis means to Ron, especially in the aftermath of his stroke, and how passionate both he and Ogden are about the game inspires me every time we play."
Not only does Miyamoto look forward to playing tennis, he also enjoys a treat or lunch afterward at Patti's Kitchen in downtown Gold Hill, where Kellogg usually drives them after the games. Patti's is one of the town's favorite gathering places for locals, and Miyamoto and Kellogg always find good friends and hot coffee there.
Darnell says he thinks the Gold Hill tennis experience can be replicated in other communities.
"Absolutely. Anywhere that a group of people share a love of tennis and a love and respect for each other, well then, what we do here could work anywhere."
The Darnells affectionately refer to their tennis group as "the Gold Hill International Swim & Tennis Club."
"It's a unique group," Carl Darnell says. "We all appreciate each other, and whether only two or 12 of us show up, we always accommodate whoever is there. Often in the middle of a game, I will have the sudden realization that I'm surrounded by people with smiles on their faces and no concerns beyond the next shot. It's a tremendously valuable reminder to stay in the moment and have fun."
Miyamoto adds, "It is like an extended family. We have a lot of fun together. And we don't take ourselves too seriously."