Get Pickled!

Popular Racket game Pickleball makes its District Debut

Playing pickleball on the Garfield Park tennis courts on Capitol Hill. Photo: Meghan Markey

The sun is bright and beating down on us at the tennis courts at Garfield Park. I’m whacking a perforated plastic ball with an oversized ping pong paddle over the net (or, at least attempting to). The ball bounces dully, I come up slightly short on my swing, and it disappointingly nicks our side of the net, falling to the ground. Yet, I’m still smiling. Wait – let me back up a bit.

It was the summer of 1965, on Bainbridge Island, WA. Joel Pritchard and a friend returned from a golf outing to a familiar lazy summer scene: their families were hanging out, looking for something to do. Pritchard decided to get creative.

With a badminton court on the property but lacking badminton rackets for everyone, Pritchard doled out ping pong paddles and found a wiffleball to use. Days passed and the newfangled racquet game evolved. And thus, “pickleball” was born.

Today, it’s one of the fastest growing non-traditional sports in the country. It’s played in recreation centers, gyms, schools, and retirement communities. Courts can be found in all 50 states, and the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) estimates there are more than 100,000 active players. It’s even gaining steam outside the country, with pickleball organizations cropping up in both Canada and India. 

Pickleball’s ease of play allows athletes of all ages and levels to enjoy the sport. It’s a great game for young children as a precursor to tennis. Seniors who wish to stay active are drawn to pickleball’s intensity, but low risk of injury; it is low impact and gentle on joints, while still being highly competitive. It’s wildly popular in retirement communities. 

A blend of tennis, badminton, and ping pong, pickleball is played on a small court about half the size of a tennis court with a low net. A tennis court can be easily modified with painter’s tape or chalk to mark the court. The composite rackets resemble large ping pong paddles, but are smaller than tennis rackets. The ball is perforated, similar to a wiffleball but more substantial. Like many racquet sports, it can be played in singles or doubles teams, and the rules are similar but not identical to tennis.

 

In DC

The District is catching on to the pickleball phenomenon. Helen White, 61, an Arlington resident, is the USAPA ambassador for the region (she won the silver medal in the singles pickleball tournament at the 2013 National Senior Games). She is dedicated to supporting the sport in the city and introducing it to DC residents.

White became interested in the sport about four years ago when she noticed a group of older women playing an interesting looking paddle game at her local gym. One day, she approached and asked if they could teach her to play. She was hooked. 

In March of last year, Kathleen Grant, 69, and Helene Quick, 72, met White in a dance class for seniors at the Hill Center. White introduced pickleball to them, and they decided to give it a try. Grant enjoyed it so much that, as a Hill resident, she volunteered to be the DC Pickleball Coordinator. Quick became a pickleball devotee and continues to play at an advanced level.  

White and Grant have worked hard to promote the sport in the area. They hosted two introductory classes and another two pickleball clinics at Emery Recreation Center in Brightwood. They recently lobbied to have the game included in the 2014 Annual DC Senior Games, hosted this past May by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) in venues across the city. 

Only two months before the May 19th event , they got their wish. DPR sent word that pickleball would officially be included, and with a little scrambling, White directed the inaugural pickleball tournament at the DC Senior Games, in coordination with Grant.  It was a great success: an enthusiastic showing of about thirty-five seniors participated on three courts, including mixed doubles and men’s and women’s singles. Pickleball was garnering some serious attention.

Which brings me to my Sunday afternoon spent in Garfield Park: I had the chance to play pickleball firsthand with a group of both beginners and experienced players, including White, Grant, and Quick. Charles Underwood, a tennis player picking up pickleball for the first time, commented, “It’s less strenuous than tennis, but still very vigorous,” a sentiment echoed by others in the group.

Grant motioned to another player and said, “She’s coming back from hip surgery; I have a bum knee – we can’t play tennis, but we can still play this game.”

Yet its straightforward rules make it simple for young players to pick up as well. One of pickleball’s best attributes is that it has cross-generational appeal.  Many schools from elementary to high schools are integrating the game into their physical education programs. 

White and Grant have been working closely with the DPR to establish pickleball courts in the city, and have been specifically looking in the Capitol Hill area.  Presently, DC pickleball players are commuting to Arlington to play. “Once we have a venue in DC, we’ll unleash it – we expect the community to grow a lot,” she enthuses. Grant and White hope to establish 4-5 places to play in the District by the end of the year, and to have an instructional program in place so that residents of all ages can learn how to play. 

Pickleball, like other sports, has its own sports jargon. There’s the “kitchen,” the no-volley zone close to the net, players are dubbed “picklers,” and losing the game is called getting “pickled.” And yet, even if you get pickled, you’ll still be grinning from ear to ear in this unexpectedly charming, active and fun sport. 

If you would like to know more about the sport, including how to learn and where to play, Pickleball Ambassador Helen White can be reached at hmwhite33@verizon.net, and DC Coordinator Kathleen Grant can be reached at kagey85@gmail.com


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