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Illness forced Teri Clemens out of coaching. Pickleball brought her back

Teri Clemens pumps her fist after scoring a point while playing pickleball at the Missouri Pickleball Club.
Danny Wicentowski
Teri Clemens pumps her fist after scoring a point while playing pickleball at the Missouri Pickleball Club.

As a volleyball coach at Washington University, Teri Clemens won seven national championships. She retired from that sport, but today she's still beating opponents over a net — only now it’s on a pickleball court.

It’s not the path she envisioned at the peak of her coaching career, which included 10 trips to the Final Four. But even as her players shone on the court, her own health was failing: Damage from ingesting turpentine as a child led her to multiple hospitalizations as an adult. She battled a variety of life-threatening conditions, including pneumonia and the blood infection MRSA.

In 1998, as her health declined, Clemens was forced to resign from the sport she loved.

“It was unfortunate that it was at the peak of my career,” Clemens said Tuesday on St. Louis on the Air. “We had won our seven national championships; we had just won six in a row.”

Clemens spent eight years recovering her health. It meant learning to walk again. But she didn’t stop there. She began training for marathons. She started playing competitive golf.

Teri Clemens.
Danny Wicentowski
Teri Clemens

Then she discovered pickleball.

“I thought, ‘That sport just looks like me,’” she recalled. “It took a lot of energy. It was a competitive, short, quick game. And I thought, ‘I need to try this out.’ I did. I fell in love with it. I stopped competing in golf immediately and went full-time pickleball.”

She’s not the only one. The sport is booming in popularity, and the region’s pickleball facilities are regularly packed with players. The region’s first court opened in Tilles Park in 2016, and since then it has taken St. Louis by storm.

“There are so many of us athletes who have left other sports, who still crave that immediate feedback that you get from such intense competition,” she said. “If someone's moving [with] really good footwork on the court? I'll ask, ‘Were you a soccer player?’ And you can see in [pickleball] that a lot of people came from different sports. … It doesn't matter what level you're at. If you're a beginner and never played before, you pick it up, and you want it again. That's the beauty of pickleball.”

Clemens is a force on the court. In December, she stood on the winner’s podium in Naples, Florida, after winning singles in the USA Pickleball Diamond Amateur Championship. Her next major event is April’s U.S. Open Pickleball Championships, but, in the meantime, she’s decided to return to the role of coaching — and not just pickleball players, but other pickleball coaches.

“I've got a little piece of ‘coach’ in my heart forever,” she said. “I've coached pickleball players, and that's a lot of hours on the court. In recent weeks, I have decided that I'm going to just focus now on my play and helping other coaches to coach players.”

Clemens’ return to competitive sports, championships and coaching wasn’t the journey she would have planned at the peak of her career. Yet, through pickleball, she’s found another arena in which to excel, new teammates to cheer and players to coach.

Most of all, she argues, pickleball has given her the thing that every player or coach yearns for — not just competition, but joy.

“Joy is what we're after in all sports,” Clemens said. “It's what we're after in pickleball. It’s what we're after in volleyball. It’s what we play for, that immense joy. It's not for the win or the loss. It’s for that joy.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."