A celebrity pickleball tournament featuring Jimmie Johnson, Lance Armstrong and Alex Ferreira on Tuesday benefited the Aspen Education Foundation. The tournament, held at the courts by the Aspen Recreation Center, was one of the auction items sold at AEF’s annual Flamingo fundraiser in December.
The pickleball tournament alone raised $25,000 for the Aspen School District, according to AEF Executive Director Cynthia Chase. Overall, the Flamingo fundraiser raised nearly $1.5 million. The live auction part of it raised $290,000.
The funds will allow the district to hire another mental health counselor in the middle school and an extra college counselor, according to Chase. AEF will also use the revenue to expand the International Baccalaureate program. The whole school district will transition to an IB curriculum beginning in kindergarten. Currently, only junior and senior high school classes are IB. The remaining funds will go toward the district’s outdoor education program, Aspen Family Connections, robotics and additional academic support, according to Chase.
“The people who bought it believe in our public schools,” Chase said. “We have a great community that continues to show up and help fund these different programs. This is one of the fun ways they can do it.”
The three purchasers of the auction item — Katie Waldeck, Diana Duffey and Tami Solondz — are parents in the Aspen School District. The auction winners created the brackets, placing the celebrities on different teams. They competed alongside a dozen friends and family members of the winners’ choice.
The celebrities in the tournament have close Aspen connections. Halfpipe skier and two-time Olympic medalist Ferreira graduated from Aspen High School in 2013, and Armstrong has children who are currently enrolled in Aspen’s public schools. Johnson, the former NASCAR champion who now drives in the IndyCar Series, is not a full-time Aspen resident, but he spends a lot of time in town and has a foundation that supports public schools.
“What I love about this is I like seeing how someone like Jimmie (Johnson) who doesn’t live here full time sees the importance — they care about our local public schools,” Chase said. “They’re not here year-round but they still see the importance of our public schools and that’s inspiring to me. Lance (Armstrong) and Alex (Ferreira) are always supportive of our schools.”
In the past few years, pickleball has soared in popularity. In 2016, the city of Aspen converted one of the tennis courts adjacent to Iselin Field into four pickleball courts. Since then, the city has made plans to renovate and improve the courts in order to increase availability of playing spaces for the trendy sport.
When brainstorming ideas for the auction three years ago, Flamingo event organizers recognized pickleball’s surge in popularity and introduced the celebrity pickleball tournament. The event has happened every year since then, although Chris Evert played in place of Johnson the last two years.
“We were trying to come up with some creative live auction items and pickleball had become so popular and so we thought, ‘You know what, let’s gather a couple local Aspen people to play in a tournament,’ and that’s how it came to be,” Chase said.
Anna Meyer is an editorial intern at The Aspen Times for part of the summer. She will be a sophomore at Vassar College this fall.