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Sweet pickle

It would only be fitting to call Joel Heller as cool as a cucumber.

You see, the 64-year-old Ashland resident is a passionate gardener. He's also an award-winning pickleball player.

Showing nerves of steel and impressive hand-eye coordination, Heller captured a pair of championships at the Oregon Senior Games last weekend in Bend.

The event, in its third year, is for athletes who are 50 and older.

Pickleball, which was one of 16 activities offered at the meet, is a racket sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis. Players use paddles to hit a ball over a net on a court — no cucumbers or Mason jars necessary.

Joe’s Sports Bar and Grill/PowerHouse Baseball & Softball Academy, a local age 50-and-over softball team, also captured gold. The club, coached by Randy Schmeltzer, beat an Albany-based squad, 14-9, in the final.

Heller secured singles and doubles crowns in his third appearance at the Central Oregon challenge at Pine Nursery Park. He placed second in mixed doubles in 2015 and was third in doubles in 2014.

"For that level of competition, that was my highest achievement," Heller says.

Heller outlasted seven other singles competitors and eight other doubles squads to earn his medals. His doubles partner was 64-year-old Bob Johnson of Redding, California.

The 6-foot Heller had to win five matches in each division. He and the 6-foot-8 Johnson cruised in doubles, winning their final, 15-10, to cap an undefeated run.

The partners, who had hit around before but never in a tournament match, were quite a handful to handle.

"He knows the game really well," Johnson says. "You have to move together as a team and know what the other person is doing. And then he has a lot of good chop on service returns. I would act like I was poaching, so with his return, (opponents) would hit a lot of balls into the net."

And to think that Johnson and Heller didn't even get the chance to practice in Bend.

"But we both knew how each other played so it wasn't brand new," Johnson says.

Heller's journey through the singles bracket was more circuitous: He had to sprout up through the consolation bracket and ultimately beat elite-level player Bill Choate of Washington thrice. The score of the final was 15-8.

"People came up to me afterward and commented that I had just beat a very good player," Heller says.

The overall competition in Bend was excellent, Heller adds.

"They are all people who have won tournaments," he says.

Johnson walked away impressed by just how well-known Heller is.

"Everyone there seemed to know him," says Johnson, who took up the sport three or four years ago.

The future looks promising for the two, Heller adds.

"I had played with some strong players in Redding and was looking for a partner and found out Bob was also in the age division I was in," Heller says. "We decided to give it a try and now we're talking about national tournaments."

Heller finds himself in very few pickles when it comes to the sport. He's ranked 4.5 out of 5 by USA Pickleball Association standards, and he could become a 5 (Heller hopes not — he'd prefer to fly under the radar).

Heller has picked up three local championships (one singles, two doubles) at Rogue Valley Country Club and says he seems to medal in most of the tournaments he signs up for. He plays in a handful each year.

Heller grew up in California's Bay Area and graduated from John Marshall High in Los Angeles, where he competed in swimming and basketball. He earned degrees from the University of California Berkeley and later from Colorado for graduate school.

"I was a professional sand volleyball player briefly in Australia, but never won a state title," Heller says.

The retired Heller, who has lived in the Rogue Valley since 1975, coached boys tennis at South Medford from 1995 to 2000. He began playing pickleball regularly about six years ago, and he now teaches classes in Medford, Central Point and Ashland.

"I've always liked hand-eye sports," says Heller, who usually plays four times a week and who also participates in tennis and sand volleyball. "And I like inexpensive sports."

Pickleball is growing rapidly in popularity, Heller adds.

"I just got done playing at Fichtner-Mainwaring Park and there were over 20 players there," he says.

Heller also teaches gardening classes around the valley, mostly focusing on growing berries and citrus. One thing he's noticed about his two hobbies?

"Patience is always important," he says.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt

Ashland's Joel Heller plays pickleball at Don Jones Park in Central Point on Thursday. He recently won a pair of first-place medals. MAIL TRIBUNE / JAMIE LUSCH