Beyond the Facade of America’s Pickleball Prodigy
Who is Anna Leigh Waters? At first glance—on and away from the court—one sees an ordinary sixteen-year-old, cheerful, effervescent, quick with a smile, a joke, a funny face. Upon closer examination one would find themself looking at America’s most recognizable pickleball player, a winner of nineteen triple crowns and eighty-something gold medals, and, more, a tireless ambassador for the sport. Other than that she seems… normal.
Often called ALW, Anna Leigh has attitude and drive in equal measure. Sponsorship deals and tournament prizes have likely made her a millionaire. If that’s true—a self-made millionaire!
Years ago she discovered pickleball through her close, loving family. With hard work, discipline, consistency, and determination (and good coaching by her mom, Leigh seen below), she blossomed into a champion. On the court and in interviews, fans only see the ALW they want to see, projecting on her any image, favorable or not.
Being the best comes with pressure. At least I would think so—unyielding pressure, suffocating pressure. No, not the pressure a firefighter must face, or a policeman, or a soldier, or a doctor, or a paramedic. But pressure, nonetheless. What with having to live up to her own expectations as well as the expectations of those who root for and rely on her success and even, sometimes, her failure, those are choppy seas to navigate. Somehow, though, Waters has managed to remain balanced and focused in a world of shrinking attention spans, on-demand gratification, and, as usual, venomous opinion. She has been called, among other things, a spoiled brat. A poor choice of words, to my mind, not to mention misguided.
Waters has talent, skill, power, along with fire in her belly and full steam in her aggressive game. To maintain those attributes, she has practiced hard and played in tournament after tournament, in women’s singles/doubles, mixed doubles, and sometimes in merciless heat. Nothing has been given to her.
Because she has been a dominant player, Anna Leigh has forced her competitors to upgrade their game. That is, if they want to beat her. Unless she has a bad match, only players who have sacrificed time and sweat and endured aches and pains are going to take from her the top prize. That alone makes the sport more attractive to audiences, sponsors, and professional pickleball in general.
At the time of writing she has earned a championship match against her friend (#2 player) Catherine Parenteau. Comments such as “yawn,” “boring,” “same old, same old,” “predictable,” and the like have been posted online. Why? Why not celebrate merit? Excellence? Winning? As champion, Waters has competed against, and defeated, the best.
Everybody wants to be number one. For now, though, Anna Leigh Waters is guarding that spot, playing in front of crowds who shout praise one day and harpoon her the next; who cheer for her to win this match, then pray for her destruction the next. Win or lose, she must go home and sort her thoughts, emotions, feelings, priorities, think long and broad; then, confident or not, return to the court and hope to be better than before. Many, regardless of occupation, would struggle to meet (let alone surpass) such standards. I often wonder what kinds of things, at sixteen, wheel through her mind. By all appearances she is having fun, being a kid while at the same time having to be an adult, no doubt making the best of the journey whatever may come. Considering what other girls her age probably do with their spare time and energy, their minds and bodies, Ms. Waters has nothing to prove, nothing more to achieve if she were to quit today. So what motivates her? Watch—you’ll see.
If you ever read this, Anna Leigh, know that you were the first player I noticed, and I liked watching you play. I still do. Even more now. I’ve seen you struggle, lose, make mistakes, get frustrated, behave out of character, talk to and quibble with yourself, but you are always back on the court, battling another opponent, giving a spirited fight. Thanks for that. As a fan and recreational player, it has been my pleasure.