Pickleball Provides an Important Outlet for Danny Wilson

Writer / Vince Welch
Photographer / Sarah Browning

This is a story about pickleball. And cancer. And friendship. And survival.Pickleball

It was March of 2022. Danny Wilson was in Fort Wayne to play in a pickleball tournament the next day, with his mixed-doubles partner, Lisa Martin. During the night, Wilson became violently ill. Food poisoning? What lousy timing, he thought. It was no better in the morning. Worse actually. As sick as he was, Wilson was angry because he wouldn’t be able to play in the tournament, and felt he was letting down Martin. Sounds crazy, right? But it’s the way competitors think, and Wilson is a competitor – he always has been.

Growing up in Anderson, Wilson played high school golf and tennis, and continued his tennis career at Anderson College. As an adult, he shifted to running. Then he was introduced to pickleball. “I loved it from the start,” Wilson says.

His first time on the pickleball court, Martin was there too, at the neighborhood courts with friends. She recognized him from passing her home while on his daily run. She referred to him as “runner dude,” and they immediately connected.

They take their pickleball seriously. They compete together as mixed-doubles partners, and train together on the court and in the gym, all with their eye on the next scheduled tournament. But they’re more than pickleball partners. Their friendship runs deep. “I love him like I love my brother,” Martin says.

Wilson and his wife of nearly 30 years, Michelle, and Martin and her husband, Bill, are dear friends. And Wilson and Michelle have needed a support system of friends.

When Wilson returned home from that pickleball tournament in March of 2022, the symptoms didn’t improve and he ended up in the emergency room. He wouldn’t go home for more than two weeks. No one ever hopes to have food poisoning, unless the alternative is stomach cancer. It wasn’t food poisoning.

PickleballDuodenal adenocarcinoma cancer, located where the small intestine connects to the stomach, is rare and persistent. There was a six-hour surgery in April of 2022, and a painful return to the hospital two months later. The scan was clean but the pain was unbearable. Wilson’s frame, even when healthy, could be described as wiry. Cancer ravaged his appetite and left him constantly nauseous. His weight plummeted from 145 to 112. “When I saw him, I went to the car and cried,” Martin says.

Bill is a retired physician. They knew, maybe even more than Wilson and Michelle, the seriousness of the situation. “It was tough, not just on me,” Wilson says. “It was hard on Michelle too, physically and mentally.”

Through it all, Wilson was determined to return to the pickleball court. “I kept asking the doctors, ‘When can I play?’” he recalls.

Wilson not only returned to the court, but he and Martin also resumed tournament play. “We dropped down a level, from 4.0 to 3.5, but just being on the court again was a victory,” Wilson says.

They competed in eight tournaments from June through November, even medaling at West Lafayette in August. “From where I’d come from, that was huge,” Wilson says.

But cancer is a stubborn opponent. Always lurking, threatening your body and your peace of mind. And in December of 2022, it returned.

“Surgery is the best way to get rid of it, but it’s so risky because of the location,” Wilson explains. “We’ve decided against it for now.”

The summer day is overcast, but not gloomy. It mirrors Wilson’s demeanor. He is quiet, but pleasant. He has taken his three morning chemo pills and mentally prepared himself for the day. He slowly walks to the SUV in his driveway, and makes the short and familiar drive to the oncology center to receive his daily treatment. Lying under the eye of the radiation machine is not physically painful, nor does it take long. He’s gone from the waiting room less than 15 minutes, and looks no different upon his return. But rest assured, it takes its toll.

“It’s the unknown,” Wilson says. “What’s my future look like? It’s harder mentally than physically.”

Wilson doesn’t advertise his condition, but people talk. “I’ve had pickleball players ask to pray with me,” he says. “People I don’t even know. That means a lot.”Pickleball

It’s amazing what brings light into cancer’s darkness. For Wilson, it’s the feel of a perfect third shot drop, or a deftly placed dink.

“I don’t know where I’d be without pickleball,” Wilson says. “It’s been a savior for me. It takes my mind off chemo and radiation. It gives me part of my life back.”

Pickleball courts are everywhere. You either play or know someone who does. For some it’s just a game. For others, like Danny Wilson, it’s more. Much more. It’s survival.

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