When Lee and Suzanne Nordhagen decided to get married in 2014, they knew they wanted to do it their way.

Both wanted their ceremony to be unique, and to involve their newfound passion, Pickleball.

They initially planned on a surprise ceremony on the courts at the East Center with fellow Pickleball enthusiast and friend Joe Brancazio officiating. But they worried some of their friends might miss the event, so they came up with another idea — hold the ceremony at a GVR Pickleball Club potluck.

They got together with club officials and pitched their idea, which included an elaborate skit, called "Going to the Chapel," where they'd get married without the crowd knowing so at the time.

They approached then-club president Donna Coon about the idea, and she loved it.

"We really kept it a secret," Coon says. "And to see people realize what was happening, and to see how much they enjoyed it, it was great. The ceremony itself was very well done and serious when it got there, but they had fun with it as well."

Long time coming

The road to the altar dates back to the late 1980s and the Nordhagen's teaching days at Cascade High School in Turner, Ore., 13 miles southeast of Salem.

Lee was Suzanne's mentor teacher after she was hired to teach physical education in 1989, and the two bonded over their mutual love of sports.

They excelled athletically, with Suzanne running track and Lee playing baseball in college, and soon found themselves coaching high school sports with the Cascade Cougars.

Lee, a math teacher at Cascade, guided the school's baseball and boys golf programs, while Suzanne took charge of the volleyball team.

Each would dedicate their time to their respective hobbies, with Lee sporting a sparking two-handicap on the links, while Suzanne was an avid runner and all-around athlete. 

Headed for GV

Lee, 66, retired from the school district in 2006, with Suzanne following three years later. They found their way to Green Valley in 2012, at the suggestion of Suzanne's father, who had retired to the area.

The two figured they'd dominate the older competition, given their athletic backgrounds, but were in for a surprise.

"We were watching them play, and my wife's telling me, 'Now remember, take it easy on them. These people are older than us and they're probably not as fit as us'," Lee recalls. "So we got out on the court and hit the ball a little bit, and finally we wound up playing a game. We didn't have our own paddles or anything, and pretty quickly we lost 11-0."

They were shocked by the speed and finesse of Pickelball, but decided to keep trying, thinking they'd eventually one-up their competition.

"We get up again and said, 'OK, we're going to really take it to them this time,'" Lee says. "And one gentlemen comes up to me and says, 'If it's OK with you and your wife, we'd like to split the two of you up, because this isn't any fun for us.'"

Both were humiliated, but discovered their mutual love for the game. 

Focus, focus, focus

The Nordhagens, who were seasonal residents at the time, dedicated themselves to the sport upon returning to their home in Albany, Ore.

The two went through dozens of drills for hours a day at the Albany Pickleball Club, learning the intricacies of the game.

They soon dominated the competition, thanks to mastering intricate shots and strategies that make the sport of Pickleball unique.

"We would just hit the ball as hard as we could to get it over the net when we first started playing, but that wasn't the art of the sport," Lee says. "The art of the sport is soft finesse, not hard."

Fast-forward a half-decade, and both are a tour de force, winning medals at events in Tucson, Casa Grande and around the state. Suzanne is the highest-ranked player in the GVR Pickleball Club membership, sporting a 4.5 ranking (out of 5.0).

They've assumed a lofty status among membership, say longtime friends and weekly playing partners Mike and Barb DiDonato.

"Lee and Suzanne head our ratings committee. So if a player thinks they're good enough to move up ranking they have to play in front of Lee and Suzanne's committee to see if they're good enough. So they're look up to by the entire club to see if they're good enough to move up a skill level."

Lee estimates that the two of them spend 25 hours a week playing Pickleball, playing every day of the week for multiple hours, usually at the East Center.

Suzanne adds that the couple continues to play, in part because of the challenge that comes with trying to master the more advanced shots in the game.

"At the advanced level it's all about strategy," Suzanne says. "You can't just hit the ball, you and your partner have to move together as a team. There's a lot of thinking and a lot of strategy involved. You're always thinking and trying to anticipate what your opponents are trying to do."

Barb says she admires how much time the couple spends with fellow members, providing pointers as they play the game.

"They're always willing to play with the lower-ranked people and help them with their game," Barb says.

Surprise wedding

It's that total commitment to the sport, and the couple's fun-loving attitude, that inspired them to pitch the idea to Coon of holding a surprise wedding at the club's potluck dinner.

Joe, who became ordained just for the wedding, remembers creating the props for the ceremony, including a flower-filled arch.

The couple, who like so many others met the Nordhagens on the hard courts of the East Center, were thrilled to play a part.

"It was really special," Joe recalls. "It wasn't very expensive to pay for it. And I just had to get over the trite of it all. I've learned how to sing karaoke and I'm not afraid of getting up there and give a speech every once in awhile. So once you get over that it's pretty easy. It definitely enhanced our relationship with them."

Lee and Suzanne say the wedding was something they'll never forget.

"We still have people come up to us and say, 'Oh, hey, I know you. We were at your wedding,'" Lee says.

No pain, no game

Lee and Suzanne have dealt with medical issues resulting from their daily Pickleball habit, with Lee requiring three cortisone shots in his right elbow and in both of his heels within the last year, while Suzanne has had to undergo surgery to repair a damage meniscus in her knee.

"You'll say, 'Hey, doc, you have to fix this because I've got a tournament coming up,'" Lee says. "So all the cortisone shots, the anti-inflammatories, lots of icing. You get older and it's to be expected."

It's not all about Pickleball for the couple, though, as they also make sure to spend time eating out together or with friends and taking in a movie.

But Lee says life wouldn't be the same without the sport.

"We've established some really good friends, and it's all because of Pickleball," Lee says. "For no other reason — we would not have met these people if it wasn't for Pickleball. That's what keeps us coming back."

Christopher Boan | 547-9747

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