If your idea of “old-people” exercise comes from a 40-year-old magazine article about shuffleboard in St. Petersburg, or bocce ball in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, you’ve obviously never seen a Pickleball game.
For the senior who’s dead-set against going out quietly in the night, it seems Pickleball is where the action is these days. Indeed, with apologies to Dylan Thomas, I had never seen so many men and women “rage against the dying of the light” as I did on days I visited the city recreation centers of Fairhope and Daphne.
Brows set with intensity. Laser-focused eyes. Arms and paddles at the ready. Finally it comes – the graceful volley, slicing through the air like a beautiful assailant. The battle unfolds like a cutthroat ballet, a grand affirmation of tenacity and defiance. As ball after ball streaks from one side of the net to the other, spectators “of a certain age” rally in lockstep and spirited salute to endurance – and the relevance of staying in the game – proclaiming their refusal to be done with this world.
The players themselves are a tad more prosaic. Linda Locklin, captain of the 60-player club in Daphne, says, “I play because it’s fun.” Sam Holt, founder of the Daphne group, says simply, “It’s fun.” Bruce Cuddy, captain of the 60-player club in Fairhope, and Barry Silverman, also of Fairhope, offer this slight variation, “It’s just fun.”
OK, OK, I’m getting the message. Pickleball players essentially don’t seem to contemplate the axiom “no pain, no gain” very often. Silverman continues, “I know I need to do cardio regularly, and this is a way for me to get cardio exercise without thinking I’m exercising. You get caught up in the game.”
If you’ve never heard of this game “Pickleball” – despite the two-plus million search results in Google; more than 4,000 courts available nationwide in rec centers, YMCA facilities, retirement communities, and cruise ships; and the fact that it’s been around since 1965 – don’t feel bad. Maybe we’ve just had our heads buried in a blistering game of bridge.
Pickleball has spread across the country at the approximate speed of a heavily caffeinated gazelle.
The game was born out of boredom on Bainbridge Island, just outside Seattle, at the home of Washington State politician Joel Pritchard. Joel and two buddies had just slithered in from a golf game and were sitting around with nothing to do, until someone got the notion to set up the badminton net. The problem, however, was that they could find neither shuttle cock nor rackets. So they improvised, recruiting an available whiffle ball and quickly fabricating a set of plywood paddles.
The trio named their oddball game “Pickleball” after, well… stories vary here. Most scholars agree it was definitely not named for a pickle – Kosher dill, watermelon, or other garden variety. One popular school of thought maintains that the game was named for the Pritchards’ dog, but Mrs. Pritchard disavows this claim. What we do know is that Pickleball caught on, somehow. However makeshift that first game was, it’s not makeshift anymore. It’s bona fide.
Pickleball is now an official sport with its own association, the United States of America Pickleball Association, who banded and bandied together in order to standardize the rules of play. Today Pickleball is played on a 44- by 20-foot court – much smaller than a tennis court, and with a much lower net – and is usually played as doubles.
The upshot is obvious. Players can concentrate on their shots (i.e.., their slices and back spins) instead of running all over the court chasing balls. Wilson McDuff, some years short of retirement (and one of the youngest players I came across), was an avid tennis player before a spinal cord injury impaired his ability.
“What you find quickly with Pickleball is that power and top spin don’t win you games. You have to think about where you place the ball. Use more backspin. It takes a lot more finesse,” McDuff explains. “It’s funny, my brother and I used to watch tennis players. We called them ‘hackers’ because they were they were always slicing it, and we swore we would never play tennis that way. But in this game you’re really better if you do dink shots or slice it under.”
Pickleball is an accepting sport on multiple levels. “You can get by without a great skill level,” Linda Locklin says. “And here’s the thing – Pickleball people are so nice. Someone new can walk into the Nicholson Center in Daphne where I play, and people will stop playing and go over to meet them.”
Is the social aspect of the game nearly as important as the game itself? “Absolutely,” Bruce Cuddy confirms. “It’s almost as much social as it is play.”
Novice player Barry Silverman agrees. “You see the same people a couple of times a week, and while you’re standing around waiting for your turn on the court, you start to learn about them. What’s happening with their family. Where they’re traveling next. It brings people together who might not get to meet anywhere else.”
So here we have a game that seniors, kids, and adults of all ages can play together. It’s fun. And it arguably has more health benefits than a box of Wheaties™ has flakes. It reduces stress; it improves mental acuity; and it prevents muscle atrophy because it keeps your whole body active. Plus, the people who play Pickleball just might want to become your new best friends.
I’ll leave you with one parting thought about this innovative, pleasantly popular pastime. In the wise and winning words of Linda Locklin: “There is no downside. So why aren’t you playing?”
George Fuller is the editor of Portico Eastern Shore, its principal photographer and a guy who’s not as fit as he, uhhhh, wants to be.