Anna Leigh Waters Is the Top Pickleball Player in the World – and She’s Only 16

Getty / Al Bello

Not many people can say that they’re ranked No. 1 in their professional sport at just 16. But such is the case for Anna Leigh Waters, who’s the reigning champ in a sport that’s exploded in popularity in recent years: pickleball.

As part of POPSUGAR’s series highlighting young athletes making their mark, Waters reflected on discovering pickleball at 11, what it’s like to balance being a pro athlete and high school, and more. Read it all, in her own words, below. And to hear more athletes’ stories, check out For the W.

I played pickleball before it was the cool and fun thing to do. I started in 2017, and it was kind of by accident. I live in South Florida, and Hurricane Irma was coming, so we evacuated to Pennsylvania, where my grandparents live. My grandfather had been playing pickleball for a little while. When we went up there, I didn’t have much to do besides school, so he was like, “Why don’t you come out and play pickleball with me?” My mom was a college tennis player and was really good at tennis, and I was playing tennis at the time, so we were like, “No, we’re not going to go play, that’s an older-person sport.”

I played pickleball before it was the cool and fun thing to do.

But he finally got us out there because we were bored. And literally the first time I hit the ball, I just fell in love with it. My mom and I were skeptical at first, but when we actually played the sport, we fell in love, and I think a lot of people are finding that out now, too.

I like to say that I grew with the sport. I played my first pro tournament at 11, won my first pro tournament at 12. So I kind of got used to it at a young age. And ever since then, the sport’s been growing. I don’t think it’s sunk in how big the sport is.

My schedule is honestly kind of crazy, but it’s also normal for me because I’ve been doing it for so long. I’m a senior in high school. I started homeschooling in third grade, so when I found pickleball, it kind of just worked out, because with pickleball, I can travel with my family and still get my schoolwork done. If I’m not at a tournament, I’ll wake up, play some pickleball, do some school, go to the gym, do some more school, and then go to sleep and do it all over again.

I also love cooking and baking – I’m in the kitchen all the time. And it’s good with my sport; I’m able to try a lot of different healthy foods and recipes. I’m the cook in my family. I make the best mac and cheese, and my pancakes are very good, too. They’re two very unhealthy things, but on occasion, it’s nice to make them.

I like to go head to head with the guys in pickleball.

I’ve always been a competitive person, but there is a lot of pressure in playing a professional sport and doing everything and staying at the top. I actually hired a mental coach like two and a half years ago. I was younger and starting that early was a really good thing for me. I also have a really good support system; my family travels with me, and they’ve always been super supportive of me. My mom’s been through the same thing, so we can talk about things and she understands what I’m going through. But honestly, I think I just have my head on my shoulders, and I’m a confident person on the court and off the court.

I think one cool thing about pickleball is that in doubles, the girl plays a really big role in the match. I like to go head to head with the guys in pickleball, and I’m pretty good at it – winning those rallies and fast-hand battles and overpowering guys. When I was growing up in the sport, a lot of people were telling me I couldn’t play the way I was playing; I was very aggressive in my playing style, and people were telling me, “You’ve gotta play soft, that’s not how the game’s played.” And I didn’t listen to them. So I’d say to all women athletes out there, don’t listen to everybody. And if you’re going to go head to head against a guy, you better bring some fire with it.

My personal goal outside of pickleball is to use the money I’m making now to invest in other things, invest in businesses. I’m learning about that right now – learning about contracts and investing the money I have. I can’t play pickleball forever.

But, say, five years from now, I hope I’m still playing pickleball. I hope I’m not getting burned out; I think I do a really good job of not doing that and knowing that I have a long career ahead. I also just want to grow the sport for younger kids. I feel like that’s still something I can really help with, especially because of my story. And I hope to play in the Olympics one day. I’ve always watched the Olympics and thought that you’ve made it if you make it to the Olympics.

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