For many, the moniker “Big D” refers to the city of Dallas, Texas, where conversations are large and the stories told, even larger.
But perhaps one Big D—Doris Castaneda— though short in stature, is aptly named. At 91 years old, lovingly nicknamed Big D by her friends and fellow competitors, Doris was this year’s oldest playing participant in the 2019 Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships.
As with most athletically inclined girls growing up prior to the enactment of Title IX in 1972, opportunities for Doris to excel on athletic fields were limited at best. But that didn't stop her. Living in the Cheviot Hills area of Los Angeles, there was a lot of open land around her house, so the neighborhood kids would play tag, hide and seek, and football.
“When a new house was built, we loved to play in the big piles of sand that were brought in,” she recalls. “My older brother could not go out and play unless he took me, so I was able to play with the neighborhood boys while my older sister and the girls played with dolls and read books. I knew early on that wasn’t for me, but sports were.”
Doris attended University High School. With no girls teams available, she joined the Girls Athletic Association after school and played a variety of sports, including softball, basketball and volleyball. The impenetrable spirit that fuels her pickleball passion today was borne out of these activities early in her life. One of Doris’ goals in fact was to make the United States Olympic Team. She excelled in numerous events—most notably, discus and sprints—but in the Olympic Trials for the Summer Games in 1948 in London and the ’52 Games in Helsinki, her qualifying performances fell short for inclusion on the U.S. squad. Earning a Bachelor of Arts in Physical Education from St. Mary’s College in Kansas, Doris headed back west to get her master’s in Phys Ed and her teaching credentials from USC. In 1950, during her time as a Trojan, in a folk dance class, she met the love of her life, Sal Castaneda. They were married 59 years before Sal passed away from metastatic skin cancer in 2014. While Doris continued her athletic exploits, especially on the pickleball court, one regret is that her beloved Sal cannot see firsthand how well she is playing: “Continuing my life without my husband and partner since college, I have all these things I want to share with him.”
With a personal motto of “Just keep moving,” Doris is certainly doing just that. Every day she ventures out to play pickleball, bocce and paddle tennis. The latter sport is one she has excelled in for many years. So much so that she was inducted into the Paddle Tennis Hall of Fame in 2010 in Venice Beach, the first woman to achieve that honor.
Doris’ love of the ocean led to a lifelong love of surfing. During her college days at USC, she would travel to Hawaii and work at the local YWCA in Honolulu. And while the waves that Duke Kahanamoku made world famous fully whetted her appetite for the sport, Doris also felt the urge to travel to Fiji once or twice a year to “hang ten.” She continued this yearly trek until she was well into her 80s!
Back on the mainland, while raising four children, the always-energetic Doris followed her love of sports and began coaching. She successfully passed all her exams to be a college coach in 1969 when athletic women were still not taken seriously. “There were three parts I had to complete—demonstrating playing and teaching, appearance, and personal interview,” recalls Doris. “I friend Hilary Marold. “I went to the USAPA Nationals in Casa Grande, Arizona, the very first major tournament I entered, and won the 80+ women’s singles,” says Doris. “It was very similar to paddle tennis, so I knew that I could excel at it pretty quickly.”
After Nationals, Roland Sunga, currently teaching pickleball at the Larry Maxam Recreation Center in Burbank, California, taped out a court and put up a portable net at a local Beach Club that Doris played at quite often. Roland and Doris and a couple of others would play every Wednesday, and quickly people began taking notice. Soon, the sport of pickleball became a favorite of many, and Doris and Roland would be at the forefront of the newest sport craze, conducting clinics and staging tournaments.
Feeling right at home with a paddle in her hands, Doris quickly became an elite player in her age group. At the tender age of 88, at the 2015 Nationals, she took home gold medals in women’s singles and doubles in 80+ and a silver medal in mixed doubles 80+. Recently, at the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, Doris captured two gold medals, one of them in mixed doubles with her playing partner, 92-year-old Army Matern.
At this year’s Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships, Doris competed in the 3.0 division, 75+, 85+ in women’s singles and was edged out of a gold medal by Joyce Jones, losing in the finals 11-8 and 11-2. In doubles, she brought home another silver, teaming with Ron Schmeck. The duo lost the gold to Elaine Brady and Kenny Lewis. Two more silver medals for Doris to add to her collection.
Despite battling osteoporosis and incidences of skin cancer, Doris Castaneda is forever rekindling that spirit of competitiveness spawned from those early days on sand-filled hills outside of L.A. While some girls gave up trying to buck the system, Doris persevered and forged a lifetime of memories on numerous athletic fields and now is having the time of her life on the pickleball court. A lifetime that is the envy of many, and while she is not overly fond of her nickname, it clearly resonates throughout the world of pickleball and is spoken in awe and reverence.