Merriam-webster.com lists the first definition of “adventure” as “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks.”
Now, one might not think of a relatively safe and fun game such as pickleball as dangerous, but then again, one is not nearly as uncoordinated as moi. In my world, any sport involving a ball could end in injury, embarrassment or tears. But there’s no crying in pickleball, so with this adventure, I vowed to soldier on.
Looking back, athleticism wasn’t exactly my forte growing up. When a ball came my way, my instinct was to quickly jump out of its way rather than catch it or hit it back. So, while it’s a cliché, it’s not at all surprising I was always the last one picked when it came time to choose sides for volleyball.
Perhaps I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to early experiences with dodgeball. Even sports enthusiasts have to agree dodgeball is rather medieval. Typically elementary-school age, the kids run around trying to pick off members of the opposing team by hurling balls at them. I remember being on only the losing side of that battle and getting smacked hard by stinging balls launched at me by bigger kids. Of course, players weren’t allowed to propel balls at the heads or stomachs of the other kids, but try telling that to a 9-year-old bully with red hair named Duke (I remember you, Duke). Rather than be competitive, I was happy to take one for the team as early in the game as possible so I could return to the relative comfort and safety of the bleachers.
I had hoped that perhaps I might have some success with kickball in the fourth grade. After all, the ball basically stayed close to the ground, and there weren’t several of them flying perilously at my face from a variety of different angles. Alas, kickball required a coordination I was not gifted with; I could run at the ball, but kicking my foot at it at just the right time usually ended up as a miss—as I skidded through the dirt and ended up flat on my back.
As I entered middle school and uniforms were required for gym class, I discovered an ingenious way to get out of playing sports with balls. “Forgetting” my gym suit became my modus operandi. In seventh grade, when our gym teacher, Ms. Cooner, had a particular enthusiasm for volleyball, my gym suit “mysteriously” burned to ashes in the dryer. Ms. Cooner was just heartbroken for me that I couldn’t participate in volleyball with the other girls while a new gym suit was shipped in from somewhere far away (there was no overnight FedEx back in the Stone Age). Meanwhile, I was more content than ever to sit on the sidelines reading Judy Blume books. Besides, there is nothing more unflattering than a girl’s seventh-grade gym suit, circa 1978. Take a kid’s awkwardness with sports and add in some more awkwardness with an ugly gym suit, and you’ve got a young person who will grow up more fond of getting a root canal than participating in sports.
All in all, I’ve been content not joining in. There are those who play and those who root the players on. I love watching soccer, tennis and even golf. I enjoy the Super Bowl, too—especially the commercials. I have zero interest in playing anything except for Words with Friends on my iPhone. But, when I first started hearing about pickleball, I was curious.
My husband, Todd, was managing a country club community in Estero last year, and he said the residents were so jazzed up about the sport that they were using chalk to create courts in the streets and driveways of the community so they could play. As a result, Todd and the management staff were working overtime to get a pickleball facility built for aficionados who were desperate to play. I remember Todd telling me, “Pickleball people are serious about loving pickleball.”
Picturing a ball in the shape of a pickle didn’t really work for my sense of logic, so I turned to Google, where I learned pickleball is a combination of badminton, tennis and pingpong, and rather than being pickle-shaped, the ball that’s batted about is round, baseball-sized and perforated, like a wiffle ball. The court is similar to a tennis court, only smaller, and with two, three or four players, the ball is hit over the net with wooden paddles. I looked at some pictures, I watched a YouTube video or two, and, from my couch, this looked like a sport I might actually be able to attempt—plus, the outfits, much like in tennis, were cute, and I feel like if you’re considering trying something out of your comfort zone, it’s important to look cute while you’re at it.
Soon after, I was randomly scrolling through Facebook when I noticed my friend JoAnne, who rarely posts anything to Facebook, had updated her status to: “Addicted to pickleball!” It was as if the universe were speaking to me. I could almost hear Ms. Cooner the gym teacher whispering from beyond: “Try pickleball, Stephanie. Just give it a try. No ugly gym suit required. You can do it, kid!”
So, I called JoAnne. She had moved to a gated golf and tennis community in Bonita Springs about a year ago, and some neighbors had taken her to the pickleball courts, where she fell in love with the sport. Her enthusiasm over the phone was infectious: “It’s like pingpong on a mini tennis court and tons of fun, plus a great cardio workout, and you’re laughing the whole time!”
So, bright and early one recent Saturday morning, I donned some cute culottes, a hot pink top and some sneakers and joined JoAnne on the pickleball court. The first thing I noticed was how crowded it was—even off-season, all eight courts were filled with folks playing doubles as we waited under a canopy for a group to tire out. In the meantime, I studied JoAnne’s adorable pickleball outfit—she’s always been fit, but pickleball must be great cardio indeed because she looked fabulous in form-fitting lycra leggings, a tank top and a sun visor with embroidered lettering: “Addicted to Pickleball.” She’s in her mid-50s, but playing pickleball three times a week had taken off 20 years since I’d last seen her. I started chomping at the bit for our turn to take the court. I wanted to look youthful and fit, too.
I had read that pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the country and that even though it’s been around since the mid-’60s, it’s been gaining popularity in recent years. Perhaps because, even for the most unathletic of the population, it’s doable. Once JoAnne and I got on a court with two other ladies, I was surprised at how easy it was. With a small playing area, the rules were pretty simple—basically, keep the ball in the lines, call out the score when you serve, and keep the ball in the air. While we were at it, we ran, we jumped, we socialized, we laughed, and we got to know our teammates.
Not only that, I won. My very first game, and I won.
At the end, I was a sweaty mess after more than an hour of continuous cardio and fun. Breathlessly, JoAnne asked me, “So? What do you think?”
Just as breathlessly, I answered, “I love it—I finally found a sport I can play.”
Note to elementary school physical education departments: Ditch the dodgeball and start building pickleball courts—it could change lives.