Picking up the Game of Pickleball
By Sandie Tillery
Quite the PickleJune 2015
By Sandie Tillery
Photos: Eric Leslie
Anyone can play. Mature people, young people, limited mobility and full-on aggressive athletes find that pickleball packs in fun for everyone. Proclaimed by many as the fastest growing sport in the United States, North State pickleball players can find games in communities from Chico to Mount Shasta, Arcata to Redding. The USA Pickleball Association has clubs throughout the United States, but many grassroots groups seem to find each other at RV parks, schools, community parks, athletic clubs and fitness centers.
The sport that originated in Washington 50 years ago has gained national attention in recent years. Competitive tournaments with official guidelines from the International Pickleball Federation and memberships in local, regional, national and world organizations have highlighted the sport’s growing popularity.
Played on a badminton-sized court with a low net, equipment consists of a plastic wifflelike ball about the size of a tennis ball and a short-handled paddle very much like a ping pong paddle. It incorporates basics from tennis, badminton and ping pong. It’s a sport designed for all ages and abilities, according to the United States Pickleball Association.
Schools, too, have begun to recognize the sport. A few North State high schools and middle schools have added courts and incorporate pickleball units into their physical education programs. Karin Fitzhugh, physical education teacher at Enterprise High School in Redding, works with local community players who mentor freshmen in a three-week pickleball course. Fitzhugh and her husband began playing in the 1980s while attending Chico State University. She frequently joins the players at Enterprise Park.
Snow birds and others who travel regularly by RV now pack their paddles so they can join organized games at many parks throughout the nation. Alan Gugin of Redding has been playing for about eight years. He first discovered the sport at an RV park in Arizona where everyone seemed to be playing. His wife Trudy plays, too, and occasionally his son, a seasonal wildlands firefighter, joins them on the court. Gugin, 65, says it is a very inclusive sport. In a tournament played in Seaside, Ore., he and his 45-year-old partner played against an 83-year-old woman and her slightly younger partner, who won the game.
On a recent Saturday morning at Enterprise Park in Redding, with five of the six courts in use, some wild balls zinged into neighboring courts greeted by encouraging comments. A few courts away, Ron Johnson, a local elementary school teacher, played doubles with three mature gentlemen in a fairly aggressive game. Johnson has 30 years of racquet sports experience, adding pickleball within the past two years. Last year, he placed seventh in
the nation in open-level play.
Mike Archibald, one of the group’s organizers, sets up and greets players. He and the others make it a point to welcome newcomers and introduce them to the basics. He has extra paddles on hand for visitors to use. The loosely knit group is not a club; there are no dues, Archibald says. But they have accumulated nets and other equipment and maintain a website with information, locations and times of play and a calendar of events.
Dick Mills, 83, played tennis for 40-plus years before he discovered action on the smaller pickleball court. “You can play with younger folks and beat them,” he said with a smile.
Briana Smalling, 29, who has suffered several sports-related injuries, has competed in two pickleball tournaments in Mount Shasta. She finds the shorter paddle, lighter ball and abbreviated strokes much easier on her body than the years of competitive tennis she played throughout high school and college. She enjoys the interaction among players and good-natured camaraderie.
Bob Shaw and his wife Marie started playing in 2012. At the time, their small group consisted of four enthusiastic and welcoming players at South Park in Redding. The Shaws now play four or five times a week at Enterprise Park. Out of growing need and convenience for the burgeoning group, Shaw started a small online business selling paddles, balls and other related items. He also brings samples for players to try out whenever he plays at Enterprise Park. “I
am passionate about pickleball, and I believe it is about to become a national pastime,” he says.