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Tunnel to Towers tournament draws 201 pickleball players

The goal for the pickleball portion of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation tri-sport event was 200 players with organizers extending a deadline to achieve that mark. They exceeded that goal by one player.

Last year, pickleball was added to the fourth-year series, which includes golf and tennis, and drew 230 players. This year’s three tourneys were played on 13 refurbished outdoor courts at the Ardea Country Club (formerly East Lake Woodlands) in Oldsmar.

Photos by Steve Lee
Co-chair Judy Foster is flanked by Fire Department of New York retirees John Lightsey and Dan Chichester.

Tunnel to Towers is a charitable foundation that benefits families of American heroes, first responders and wounded veterans from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That’s when two commercial airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and both towers collapsed, resulting in more than 2,700 fatalities.

Along court fences and on photos planted on low signs throughout the grounds were the faces those who worked for the New York Police Department, Fire Department of New York or the city’s port authority. In all, there were 409 faces on display.

Photos by Steve Lee
Jodie O’Grady and Charlie Sherwood are congratulated by Julia Kolderman and Christopher Thornton after their mixed doubles match.

“It just blows your mind,” said Dan Chichester, an FDNY retiree. “I get teary-eyed every time I look at this.”

Judy Foster, the tri-sport event’s co-chair, said more than $100,000 was raised last year with projections of about $125,000 when this year’s figures are tabulated.

While the tourney was competitive, with medals doled out to the top three finishers in 12 divisions, the cause apparently was just as important, if not more so, than playing. Along those lines, players chose a victim of the 9/11 tragedy to compete for.

Photos by Steve Lee
Players battle on court 13 in a mixed doubles match.

“It’s just great to have some fun for a cause that matters,” said Julia Kolderman, who partnered with Christopher Thornton in mixed doubles.

“I feel like I’m playing for them,” Thornton added.

Mixed doubles partners Kathy Vanderbeck and Ernie Gonzalez drove up from Englewood to play in the tourney.

 “When I got a picture of that young man (the late firefighter Ruben Correa) I selected, I got chills up my spine,” Gonzalez said.

For Vanderbeck, playing in the tourney and its cause hits home. Her husband David is a retired police officer.

Photos by Steve Lee
Players Kathy Vanderbeck and Ernie Gonzalez stand alongside a row of photos of fallen heroes from the 9/11 tragedy.

“We have some friends who are NYPD and have health issues (from being in the city at the time of the attack),” she said.

“It’s just full circle for me,” said Larenzo Walker, the pickleball tournament director who has worked in the Transportation Security Administration.


As for the competition, Walker said, “The level of play was very good. (Players) were there to have fun; not much pressure.”


Times Total Media Correspondent

 Photos by Steve Lee

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