By Nancy Gilkey
Northeast Community Center volunteer
“Stay out of the kitchen!” If you’ve ever been given that order, it may have had nothing to do with food or the way you prepare it. Rather, you may have just been given a reminder in the game of Pickleball to keep your feet out of the no-volley zone. Although the name of the game may sound less than serious, the paddle sport combining aspects of badminton, ping pong and tennis continues to draw a passionate base of serious players. According to an article in Athletic Business, “Pickleball is one of – if not the – fastest-growing sports in the country.”
The game was originally created in 1965 by friends who spent their summers on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and were looking for a way to keep their kids busy on a lazy day. But as the creators acknowledge in a short documentary about the start of the sport, the adults quickly fell in love with the game of their creation. Using a badminton court, some wooden table tennis paddles and a plastic baseball, the children and adults could engage in a sport that was equally accessible to all ages. Inviting other friends to play and using it as a backdrop to one of the inventors and U.S. Congressman Joel Pritchard’s political events and fundraisers, the sport drew the attention of a national newspaper reporter. Curiosity created the need to produce more official gear, so one of the other creators began selling paddles he cut from his jigsaw. Not only was a game created, an industry followed with Pickleball, Inc.
Today, the equipment has advanced to graphite paddles, and play has even led to regional or national tournaments drawing crowds of spectators. Even in the greater Portland-area, local tournaments are taking place, including one in which Northeast neighbors Sharon Beckett and Linda Tester participated at Eastmoreland Courts and Racquet Club. Having first learned about the game at the Northeast Community Center, the two have been playing continuously during the open Pickleball games held there. When the two began playing two years ago, they were swinging the paddle between their knees and watching the wiffle-sized ball sail past them. Soon though, Tester wanted to learn strategy and technique. She read books and watched videos online. And like her friend Sharon, they just kept playing over and over.
“The culture of this sport is that players help each other,” explains Tester. They learned from opponents and friends waiting to play on the sidelines about tactics and where to stand for the best chance of stopping rallies. From a book, Beckett learned tricks about how to hold the paddle most effectively and that keeping her feet moving all the time allowed her to reach the balls that might have been hard to get to on flat feet. They quickly have become experts on the rules and masters of strategically-placed shots on the courts.
Although Tester and Beckett did not win their tournament, they played people of all ages during the six sets, including two girls, ages 11 and 12 who were “happy and gracious players,” explains Tester. Tester and Beckett play, on average, three to four times a week, at NECC and other facilities with Pickleball courts. They’re even looking for a coach, but in the meantime they have introduced it to their family, (e.g. their husbands and Tester’s daughters and cousins) who understand and even support this new fervor for Pickleball.
Fellow NECC player Diane Ecklund used to play tennis and finds that many of her tennis skills come in handy during Pickleball. But she doesn’t have as much court to have to run to cover, and she enjoys playing in doubles best for the active sport. “It’s so much fun. It’s addictive,” Ecklund explains. Another player, Sue Curry, who has only known about the sport for approximately a month, finds that she appreciates the social activity at the NECC as much as the physical aspects of the game. Curry thinks that it requires good hand-eye coordination. “Competition has nothing to do with age. I come home dripping wet.”
Whether it’s being played as a competitive tournament sport or just for one of the three weekly drop-in sessions at NECC, the game of Pickleball has come a long way in the 50 years since some kids were bored and their dog “Pickles” kept running away with the ball.