It was March 19, 2020. I had just lost my job as a waiter due to Covid lockdowns in Los Angeles. Every modeling gig and commercial project I had auditioned for came to a halt. The next day, I found myself on a flight back to Kansas City, my hometown, with only seven other passengers on board. I was nervous and terrified about what the future was going to look like.
I hunkered down for a few weeks and realized that I wasn’t going back to Los Angeles anytime soon. I was looking for a way to safely pass the time when my neighbors down the street asked me to join them for a game of pickleball.
In the midst of the pandemic, it was about the only thing we could do and not break county health guidelines. Pickleball allowed us to be outside, as well as maintain social distancing. From the moment I hit the first ball, I could tell that something was different about the sport. It was social, fun, energizing and extremely easy to grasp in a short amount of time. I did not know, however, that it would change the course of my life and present a new career path.
My life before pickleball helped shape me into the person and athlete I am. I have been singing since I could talk and as a 5-year-old put on performances in my family’s living room wearing nothing but Ninja Turtle underwear and snow boots. From there, I joined every school choir and sang in an all-male a cappella group in college. My years with the Missouri State Beartones were among the best of my life.
In 2015, I took a leap of faith and auditioned for “American Idol.” With each round, I could feel my confidence building and I eventually made it to the top 48. I was the first contestant from Kansas City featured on Season 14, and our living room was packed with family, friends and neighbors to watch my audition on premiere night.
I fought my way through all of the producer rounds and the rounds no one sees on television, and found myself talking to Ryan Seacrest just before I walked into the room to sing for Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, and Harry Connick Jr. To this day, I credit that audition process with helping me find my inner confidence. Before the show, I knew I was good, but never truly believed I could make it. Looking back now, all of those nervous auditions in front of some of the most important figures in Hollywood really molded me into the person I am today.
“American Idol” had such a profound impact on my life that after the show ended, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment. Shortly after settling in, I made an appearance on “Boy Band” on ABC, shot the pilot for numerous singing shows, almost became a background vocalist for Beyonce at Coachella and was the face for national commercials for Apple and TMobile.
The entertainment side of my career is still very much alive and well, as I continue to work on projects. Everything I have gone through, from my time on “American Idol” to the ups and downs of Hollywood castings, has directly translated to the professional side of my pickleball career by making me confident and mentally tough.
That’s leads me to pickleball. It’s been hard to avoid hearing about pickleball the last couple of years. In the simplest form, it is a combination of tennis, ping pong and badminton and is played with a paddle and whiffle ball. I was immediately drawn to it because of my extensive background in racket sports.
I started taking tennis lessons in middle school, and quickly became a top junior player in the Midwest. I played in the No. 1 spot for my high school varsity team before competing at the collegiate level for Missouri State University. Even though the transition to pickleball was quite fast for me, I never would have thought that I would fall in love with the sport like I did.
Pickleball has a funny way of taking over your life in the best way. If you’ve never played, you wouldn’t understand, but for those of you that do play, you get what I’m saying. I’m constantly thinking about playing, texting friends to play or watching videos online of other people playing. The best way I can put it, is that pickleball is social. The players are so welcoming, and if you really pay attention, you can learn and understand how to play the game in less than an hour.
Pickleball has no age or height requirements. I coach clients who are in their 70s and they could easily hang in a game against people half their age. That’s really the secret sauce to the sport. A grandpa can go out and play with his grandson, just as much as a pro golfer could go out and play against a pro figure skater. The sky is really the limit for this sport. Go out and grab a paddle and a ball and see if you don’t fall in love.
My personal pickleball journey started in the amateur division at the 4.0 level. Slowly but surely, I rose through the ranks, accumulating numerous gold medals and triple crowns across the country at the 5.0 level. About a year and a half into playing, I made my way into the pro game, and realized how much different it was. Players were not doing this just as a side hobby; they were 110% committed to the sport, and that’s when I realized I had to do the same.
I finished my most successful year ever as a coach in Beverly Hills and in January decided it was time to take another leap and become a full-time professional athlete. Since making that decision, I have won two professional bronze medals on the APP tour, one in singles and one in mixed doubles. I have a current world ranking of No. 40 in men’s singles and No. 42 in mixed doubles.
Big companies are starting to take notice of the growth potential and are becoming sponsors on the different tour stops. Even celebrities have become part of the game by investing in Major League Pickleball teams across the country. So much is happening and changing all the time and as a player trying to make it to the top of the game, there is no time to stall. That’s why I have to train each day like a professional athlete to compete against the best in the world.
My daily routine can be pretty crazy, but then again, I get to hit a ball over a net for a living so it doesn’t really suck that bad. I wake up between 8 and 9 a.m., make a quick healthy breakfast and head to the gym. I usually spend about 90 minutes lifting and then finish with sitting in the sauna. Then I grab a protein shake or lunch and hit the courts for a two-hour drill session. I will take a break for a few hours to catch up on emails, and then hit the court again for another 90 minutes of drills or high-level rec play.
Last year, I spent about 25 hours a week coaching, but this year that time is spent each week training myself and getting faster and smarter. The margins in this sport are very slim. One or two errors in a match can be the difference from winning and losing, so you really have to find a way to focus and dial in each time you step on the court.
A lot of the mental battles that I deal with as an athlete are very similar to those I dealt with as a kid growing up in Kansas City. I came from a large extended family, have amazing friends and everyone seemed to gravitate towards my big personality. I was good in school and excelled in sports. However, I could tell at times that I was different than the other boys. As I got older, it became a constant struggle of finding out who I really was. I spent my entire childhood trying to fit in, until I realized that standing out and being authentically me was way more fun.
Being gay was never really something I thought about; I was simply just being myself. But I still felt a need to fit in and would try to act “cool” around the popular kids and date girls because that’s what every other guy was doing. At times, I got made fun of for being too feminine or for having too many friends who were girls, but in my defense, they were just way more fun. I always thought boys were cute, but never acted on those feelings in fear of being shunned. I wish back then I had the strength and courage to be myself, but I am writing this article now knowing exactly who I am.
At the end of 2018, I came out to my family and my closest inner circle of friends. Coming out wasn’t a decision I made for anyone else. It was a decision I made for myself to be 100% authentic, and it has been the best decision of my life. On New Year’s Day 2019, I posted a message on Instagram and was immediately met with an outpouring of love and support. I was free.
The older and wiser I get, the more and more it becomes clear that one has to distinguish what makes you unique and different against everyone else. There are lots of pickleball players in the world, but not all of them have red hair or get to represent the LGBTQIA+ community in the professional arena. I could not be more excited to celebrate these things and show people all the colors of the rainbow.
Zack Taylor is a professional pickleball player living in the Los Angeles area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media on Instagram at “zacktheredhead” or on Facebook at “TeamZackTaylor.” He is also looking for sponsors or donations to further his pickleball career.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (email@example.com)
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