PORTLAND, OR. -- Serving in the military requires discipline, perseverance, and the ability to adapt to new challenges. For one pickleball player and Oregon Air National Guard member, these traits have been the cornerstone of their success both on and off the court.
As the unit deployment manager for the 142nd Maintenance Operations Flight (MOF), Tech. Sgt Nicole Cooper supports the overall readiness of the unit by ensuring members are deployable. Being able to set her flight up for success is something Cooper finds personally rewarding.
“My cup is always full when I get to serve others,” said Cooper.
Outside of her military duties, Cooper enjoys spending time with her parents, and on one specific occasion back in 2019, Cooper’s parents introduced her to the game of pickleball.
“I had zero interest in this game the first couple of months,” said Cooper. “There was no thrill! And to be very honest I was getting my tush kicked by much older athletes. I wasn’t happy about losing. What kept me coming back for more was the insanely nice community I met.”
The sport eventually grew on Cooper and within a year, she was hooked.
Now four years later, through a culmination of practice, dedication, and hard work, Cooper has won numerous competitions including the Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships. There she won two gold medals and one bronze medal.
“I feel alive when I play,” said Cooper. “Like a part of my identity that was lost is found. When I’m competing at tournaments, battling alongside my teammates, I feel a great sense of freedom to be unapologetically fierce.”
Cooper, who initially joined the military to obtain stability and direction in her life, was able to find that once again on the court.
The confidence she carries on the court stems from her mother who has been by her side through her journey in the military and now her pickleball career, and continues to be one of her biggest supporters.
“Without a doubt, all day, every day, since 1986, she has been my solid rock,” said Cooper.
Cooper's support system extends to her father and sister. They have not only stood by her side through her journey to gold by taking care of her daughters while she's away at tournaments and training sessions, but also throughout her career in the military.
Alongside her family, Cooper has also received immense support from her military leadership.
“It’s very reassuring to see the military giving back, being flexible, and supporting passions [and] goals,” said Cooper. “Never a regret that I joined the best Air Force in the world.”
Cooper is now at the 17-year mark in her Air Force career and has plans to retire at 21 years. Until then, she will continue to serve the mission where her leaders need her to be.
“I’m happy to show up in any way for my state [and] country,” said Cooper.
Outside of her military duties, playing pickleball has become more than just a game she plays with her parents. It is a way to build long-lasting relationships, stay mentally and physically fit, and find a sense of purpose.
“I’m passionate about performing to the best of my ability, the process it takes to get there, and the support it takes to continue the journey,” said Cooper.
A sport that initially brought her no joy, pickleball is now a vital part of her life. From the cultivation of lifelong friends to what gives her life further meaning, Cooper's passion for the sport serves as a source of inspiration for others, while her commitment to giving back helps to strengthen the bonds of camaraderie among her fellow service members.