LONG BEACH — Early one recent Wednesday morning, before most of us were starting our workdays, four older adults were spotted commandeering a local tennis court for the purpose of Pickleball.
On hands and knees, Deb Stone, a recent retiree and newly anointed pickleball nut, was cleaning, scraping and “chalking out” a court so the foursome could get their fix.
“This is what you have to do to play locally,” Stone confessed.
The four unfurled their contraband; a portable pickleball net. Once assembled, the quartet quickly and quietly got to ‘dinking,’ that is, gently volleying the pickleball back and forth over the net, within the ‘kitchen’ of the court, that’s the inside box, closest to the net. The rhythmic, continuous volleying was made possible by lots of gentle twists, swings and underhand ‘dinks.’
Bounce. Thwack. Bounce. Thwack. The hypnotic ritual was but a warm up to the nefarious action yet to come.
Within minutes, two opposing teams now stung the ball back and forth with a good deal more gusto. Lunging this way and that, the duos danced like partners at a Wimbledon reunion.
Most passersby would hardly know it, but Stone, her friend Lois Hantho, along with Dave and Jackie Stout, are part of a fast growing movement. Lets just call it a Pickleball Revolution.
While the craze has attracted thousands of players of all ages, shapes and sizes, some of its most ardent enthusiasts are of retirement age. And though they may not be spring chickens themselves, the game helps keep the spring in their step, they say.
As this pickleball contingent grows, so too does the demand for dedicated pickleball courts. If local players get their wish, both the Peninsula Senior Center and Culbertson Park may soon boast dedicated pickleball facilities. The more the merrier, local pickleballers are saying.
“What we would like to do is get the city to do something permanent here,” Stone said. The others nodded in agreement.
In the first game of the morning, Dave Stout was paired with his wife, Jackie. The two dabbled in the sport 35 years ago in Bellingham, but both only began playing regularly three years ago while living in Arizona when they saw it take off in their Phoenix community. Dave said he knows of some hardcore pickleball heads that have been playing locally for 15 years in the second story of an old barn.
He’s right, the Chinook Observer featured the story of Steve McPhail and his curious band of barnyard pickleball enthusiasts way back in 2004. Now, the game has gone street level.
“There’s a real following here,” Stout assured. He and the others often commute to Seaside to play at Thousand Trails, a campground and RV resort that boats a dedicated outdoor pickleball court.
Long Beach Mayor Jerry Phillips said pickleball has recently breached the council agenda and there is some talk of developing a dedicated court at Culbertson Park, on the site where the skatepark used to be. That might cost as much as $9,000, said Phillips, who added that plans are still in a discussion phase, and no decisions have been finalized or funds set aside.
After each game to 11, the players alternated partners. The focus was firmly on having a good time and getting in a light workout. Although there was some debate about that.
“This is all for fun. Right?” Stone said, after some confusion about how many points had been tallied.
“Nothing’s for fun if you’re keeping score,” Dave Stout replied with a smile.
The game the foursome played looked a lot like doubles tennis. Though a singles version of pickleball is also popular. The ball is hard, light, and punched with little holes; similar to a wiffleball. Instead of a tennis-like racket, a large stiff paddle is employed. In the doubles version, players don’t need to alternate hits on the ball, but rather, must cover the court, left to right, and front to back with cooperative aplomb. The pickleball can be volleyed back without a bounce, but the player has to avoid stepping “into the kitchen” to do so.
Even though the game is quick and resembles tennis, it is less jarring, and the smaller court means players travel a shorter distance to the ball. While it may simulate a slower tennis-like game, fitness, skill and strategy are definite advantages. The doubles game rewards partners that muster a mix of seamless teamwork and individual hustle.
Pickleball was born in Bainbridge Island when then-Congressman Joel Pritchard and friends improvised a game to keep the kids busy through the lazy days of summer. By the end of that first week however, the adults had taken over the court and then introduced the game to more friends. It spread from there. Today, approximately 2 million people are playing pickleball, and the number of places to play has doubled, since 2010.
No pickles are used to play. According to legend, the game took its name after the Pritchard’s spaniel, “Pickles,” who was said to disobediently fetch the ball and run off with it. But even the family has disputed that claim, saying it made a good story, but the dog was actually named after the game, not the other way around. Joan Pritchard said the game reminded her of a slow boat of oarsmen, something she called the “pickle boat.” Joel Pritchrd said they needed a “nutty name,” and so pickleball fit the bill.
“It’s not just the old people, a lot of younger people are getting into this,” Dave Stout said before heading into battle.
Some say its the “fastest growing sport in America.”
A few years ago, the Stouts, Stone and Hantho all went to a tournament in La Pine. Well over 100 pickleball players showed up. They raised $5,000 for the local Parks and Rec.
“That’s just the potential that Long Beach could be doing here with tournaments,” Stone said.
Stone said one could play in Northwest tournaments just about every weekend; listing Corvallis, Albany, Vancouver, and Portland as cities that host dedicated facilities and tournaments. “There’s tournaments all over the place.”
As the quartet kept battling on the court, a woman walking by and waved. Want to join us?” Stone offered with a shout. She recognized the woman as a frequent pickleball player. But the woman was tired after walking four dogs from the animal shelter. “One all the way around the boardwalk,” the woman announced.
But about 10 minutes later, another woman cruised up on a bicycle, and stopped to linger at the fence. It was yet another pickleball player, this one visiting from Bend, and she was looking for a game. Stone recognized her from the tournament in La Pine.
“We try to play on the road whenever we can,” the Bend woman said.
She joined the game and Dave Stone sat out for a break. As the players lost themselves in the match, the serves appeared to get swifter, the rallies longer.
Soon, two more women on bikes appeared. They parked themselves at the fence, and seemed to gaze longingly at the pickleball game.
Yep, more pickleball players.
“We always check for pickleball every place we go,” the woman from Reno said. Her friend, a woman from Lakewood, said she was disappointed when they couldn’t find anything online about Pickleball in Long Beach, but the oversight didn’t stop them from coming because, she said, the area had other things to offer.
Does she know even more pickleball players looking for a game?
Sure, she said. “All our husbands love to play.”
You need a smooth, clean surface, free of cracks and rocks that threaten the bounce of the light, plastic pickleball, Stone says. Wind can prove a problem, if it gets too heavy.
As they played on their makeshift court, and rotated from one side to the other, the players were occasionally confused by their chalk markings that overlapped the tennis lines differently at each end.
Dave Stout said other than the guys in the barn, he heard there is one condominium complex that has a dedicated court. Neither are easily accessible to the public.
Stone said she thinks an indoor court, permanent or otherwise would be necessary for the rainy spring, fall, and winter months, that threaten to dampen the sprits of players infected with the insatiable pickleball itch.
Because the paddle game uses a smaller court, tennis courts are often divided up to accommodate several pickleball courts. In some places, the underused tennis facilities have been abandoned completely, and the changeover made permanent.
All seemed to agree that the Culbertson court sees as much, or more, use by pickleball than tennis players. They said they don’t want to do away with the tennis, but just that it shows that there is a demand not currently being met.
“We’ve always played a lot of sports,” Jackie Stout said. “But then you get a little too old for tennis and racquetball. This is perfect. People in their 80s can play this.”
And all types are playing. Dave was a high level executive. Jackie was a telephone technician. They know plumbers, accountants and lawyers that play.
“Everybody loves this game,” Jackie said. “It’s amazing”
Whether for kicks or fitness, pickleball does double duty.
“At this point in our lives we do need the exercise,” Jackie said. “But the fact is, it’s just so much fun.”
The “fun” likely accounts for the fast-growing popularity. Hantho just started playing last fall, but judging by her aggressive stance, astute focus, and capable backhand, you’d think she’d been playing much longer.
She started playing in La Pine, and hasn’t stopped since. “That’s when we picked it up,” she said. “We’re just trying to drag it out here.”
Hantho thinks it would be a good fit for Long Beach, a town that strives to be “a vibrant resort community,” at least according to the city’s “Vision Statement.”
Truth be told, “(pickleball) attracts older, better-behaved people with money,” Hantho said. “I just think it would be an awesome thing in Long Beach.”
It was true. There was plenty of etiquette among this crowd. No cursing, although at one point, someone almost did, almost. The players had the final say on ‘outs’ in their own side, and none of the close calls were debated. And yet for all this ‘fair play,’ the paddling was pretty feisty.
As one hotly contested point boiled to a near-net rally, Hantho tried to backhand the ball past Stone, but Stone charged the net, and spiked the pickleball down with authority. “Back at you girlfriend!” she shouted, and then improvised a brief victory dance.
As the ball was fetched between points, Hantho regained her composure. She took a deep breath and gazed upward at nothing but blue sky. “What a nice day,” she muttered to no one in particular. “If we played pickleball all day ... how bad is that?”