Vail-area pickleballers pick up cash at Steamboat Springs tournament
Bruno Barrueto and Vicky Keleske won the mixed doubles title over Hercilio Cabieses and Mary Kozak
Eight Vail-area pickleball players competed at the Steamboat Open Sept. 23-24, and a few returned with a nice chunk of change.
Vail instructor Bruno Barrueto and fellow Peruvian-born pro Hercilio Cabieses won the $1,500 open men’s doubles purse. Barrueto also paired up with Vail’s Vicky Keleske in the open mixed doubles, defeating Cabieses and another valley resident, Mary Kozak, in the championship for an identical prize. The silver medalists took home $500, too.
“Bringing home the money was awesome,” said Keleske.
“So excited about it,” said Barrueto, adding that the spoils were some of his first as a pro. “I want to keep doing it.”
Locals claimed other victories as well. Greg and Debbie Mink won the 3.5 mixed doubles gold, with the silver going to Carol Johnson and Ben Moore. Greg Mink teamed up with Marc Lotker to secure the 3.5 men’s doubles gold as well and in the 4.5 mixed doubles division, Jeff Wiles and Jill James snagged a bronze. Finally, Keleske and her partner Katherine Wei claimed bronze in the women’s open division.
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“The Steamboat folks were very generous and put on a great tournament,” said EagleVail pickleball coach Mike Leigh, who also competed.
All money raised through the tournament was split between the Steamboat Springs Pickleball Association’s youth pickleball outreach and Stop Alzheimer’s Now, with 100% of the Stop Alzheimer’s Now proceeds going directly to Alzheimer’s research.
“I’m hoping Vail, BeaverCreek, Avon and EagleVail can host a tournament in the future to benefit a worthy cause,” Leigh said.
Trash talking to the top
Keleske and Barrueto are a unique pair.
“My partner — who could totally be my son — he is crazy next level,” Keleske said of Barrueto. Ironically, their pickleball stories share similar themes. Both were born outside of the country and came to the sport from tennis. And, both have gotten pretty good — quickly.
Barrueto was a junior Olympic teenage badminton star who took up tennis to earn a college scholarship in the U.S. He played at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia before transferring to Utah Valley University, where he has one more year of eligibility. A couple years ago, he started summering in Vail, intending to coach tennis at the Bill Wright Tennis Center.
“Then I discovered pickleball,” said the now sponsored Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) tour player.
Keleske, who described her athletic self growing up in South Africa as “a jack-of-all trades, master of not many,” played collegiate field hockey and tennis. She arrived in Vail in 1999 and was introduced to her husband Marc while hitting tennis balls with Eileen Shiffrin. They married, own and operate Vail Chicago Pizza, and became one of the top married doubles teams in the United States in 2007.
“When the Cascade tennis courts closed, my husband and I kind of had to find something else,” Keleske chronicled. “Low and behold, pickleball kind of came into the valley and I jumped on the bandwagon.”
Like everything in her life, the ultra-driven Keleske took an elite approach to the game. She sensed potential from the first serve.
“I’m like, ‘I’m good at this,'” she recalled matter-of-factly. Winning singles and mixed-doubles crowns at her first tournament in Colorado Springs planted pro aspirations. Over the last half-decade, however, the sport’s shocking evolution has reset expectations.
“The level (then) was mostly people like me,” she said. “In the last four years, if you want to be pro, you have to quit your job and train four to five hours a day. That’s how quickly the level has changed.”
Keleske dipped her toes into a pro event, partnering with now No. 2-ranked mixed doubles player Riley Newman for a tournament in Las Vegas a couple years ago.
“I was so overwhelmed,” Keleske said of her experience. “I just didn’t realize that the level went up that fast.”
The 5.0 rated player, (pickleball skill ratings ascend from 1.0 to 5.5 based on specific skill acquisition and tournament results) rarely faces stiff competition in her daily matches in Eagle County, and that included her first games against Barrueto two years ago. Well, that’s her side of the story at least.
“I was like, ‘yeah he’s good,’ but I was still kicking his butt,'” she recalled.
“Never,” Barrueto laughed when asked to confirm Keleske’s dominance. “Oh she’s full of….she’s funny.” He paused before dishing out his own good-natured diss: “I think she beat me just one set in her life and I was playing with my left hand, I think. That’s it.”
Barrueto did verify his rapid maturation in the sport, crediting badminton for his hard overhead, supple wrist-action and quick reaction.
“Badminton is the fastest sport in the world,” he said. “Pickleball is perfect — it’s the same dimension, the size of the court. Having tennis and badminton, it was just perfect.”
“I went out to Gold Peak (this year) just to hit with the guy, and I’m like, ‘holy crap, yeah he’s definitely next level,'” Keleske said of Barrueto’s progression.
Keleske has been rehabbing a torn ACL this summer, which has kept her out of tournaments. When Barrueto invited her to be his partner for the Steamboat event, however, she couldn’t resist.
“You don’t turn down any opportunity to play with Bruno,” she said.
The duo downed their first-round opponents 11-6, 11-3 and ran through the quarterfinals 5-11, 11-6, 11-6.
When asked about their on-court chemistry, Barrueto said, “I used to play with my sister. It’s just like that. If I go to the right, she’s going to be at the left; she knows me too well.”
They met Kozak and Cabieses — a pro currently based in Florida — in the semifinals. Barrueto and Keleske took care of business against their Vail rivals, 11-8, 11-5. But Kozak and Cabieses defeated Hui Gan and Chris Cervera 11-7, 11-2 in the drawback, earning a title-game rematch. This time, Kozak and Cabieses had the better hand (11-7, 9-11, 11-2).
“Super lucky, I think we were blinded by the sun,” Keleske joked of the loss. “No, they were phenomenal.” In the rubber match, Keleske described the atmosphere this way: “One side was very professional and the other side was trash-talking monkeys.” Both her and Barrueto fessed up to fitting the latter description.
“Man, we were cheering out loud, we were screaming,” Barrueto said. “It was a war.”
In the end, Barrueto and Keleske emerged with a 15-10 win. Afterwards, the entire Vail crew went out to eat together.
“On the court we were all going crazy and then afterwards, everybody loves everybody,” said Kelesky, who chatted with Kozak about their tournament over dinner a few days later.
“Just what our roles as two old ladies was playing with these two young guys,” she said. “That’s what is amazing about pickleball — how welcoming it is towards everyone.”
Up next for Barrueto is a PPA tournament in Las Vegas in November, where he’ll partner with an Argentinian player also based in Vail.
“We have so much chemistry,” he said. After that, he’ll return to Peru to get his tennis swing back. He hopes to finish out his collegiate career before focusing on pickleball full-time.
“It’s growing so much,” he said. “There’s a bunch of pros and contracts out there right now.” Keleske is hoping to get in on the pro action, too. She’s eyeing the two-tiered Major League Pickleball draft, but with chairlifts firing back up soon, the restaurant business is her first priority for now.
“It’s just not feasible, working up in the mountains,” she said of going all-in on pickleball.
Barrueto said he plans on returning to Vail next summer and is always down for a game.
“I like to play with everyone,” he said. “I don’t care if they’re pro, if they’re bad…I just play and have fun. When it goes to the competition, I play for real.”