Quite the Pickle

Hundreds descend on LakePoint for Pickleball tournament

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After surviving a motorcycle accident, Harris Pollack struggled to find a sport he could do to stay active.

The Kingston resident had “hardware” all over his body, including a brace on his lower leg. He needed to find a sport that didn’t require long spurts of running.

It led Pollack to the sport of pickleball, and to see him play on the makeshift courts at LakePoint’s Champions Center is to see someone truly enjoying himself.

“I was rehabbing and somebody introduced me to pickleball,” Pollack said. “I can’t run, my foot won’t flex, but this is usually just two or three quick steps most of the time, not running. It’s been great.”

He and more than 300 other pickleball players will put their skills on display this weekend when the Second Annual USAPA St. Jude National Indoor Classic takes place at the Champions Center.

Pollack is just one of the many success stories of the rapidly growing sport that combines aspects of tennis, badminton and pingpong played with a paddle and a Wiffle-esque ball.

One doesn’t have to look far to find other success stories within the pickleball community. 

In fact, a quick chat with Jack Thomas, president of the USA Pickleball Association, reveals a backstory not unlike many of the sport’s participants.

“I had type 2 diabetes and was weighing about 240 pounds, started playing this and started watching my diet, nothing drastic, now I don’t take any medication at all,” Thomas said. “… There’s all kinds of stories like that.”

Thomas, a co-director of this weekend’s tourney, started playing pickleball nearly seven years ago after being introduced to the sport by a friend. 

Now, he plays any chance he gets.

“I’m also a pilot, but if I’m not flying, I’m playing somewhere,” the 72-year-old Thomas said.

He’s seen remarkable growth occur in the past few years. Thomas said the USAPA has seen its membership numbers rise from roughly 7,000 to 30,000 in less than five years.

Aside from the jump in members, he said it’s easy to track the growth of the sport through the number of places pickleball can be played.

“If you go to our USAPA.org website, you can click on “Places 2 Play” and that’s going to give all of the known locations in the United States. It’s growing at about 90 new places to play every month in the country,” Thomas said. “It’s just amazing. The big reason it’s growing so quickly is all ages can play.”

This weekend’s tournament, which starts Friday morning at 8 a.m. and runs through Sunday, will include doubles play (mixed, men’s and women’s) along with singles play. Based on registration numbers, it’s set to see more than double the number of participants of last year’s St. Jude Classic.

According to David Jordan, co-director of the tournament and past president of USAPA, the schedule played a big role in seeing the number of players sign up jump from 123 to 305 — representing 19 different states, including as far away as Utah — because the 2017 edition took place on Monday-Wednesday.

Last year’s tournament raised just shy of $6,800 for St. Jude. Jordan expects this year’s event, which is free — including unpaid parking on the back side of the Champions Center, to garner at least $10,000 for the organization, while Thomas believes this year’s giant check could have double the amount from 2017.

“I think, from the success we had last year, a lot more people heard about it, so a lot more people are coming,” Jordan said. “We look forward to it being even bigger next year.”

The increased numbers this time around are yet another sign of the aforementioned widespread popularity of pickleball across the country and around the world.

On the local level, ambassadors volunteer their time teaching and growing the game. There are roughly 1,700 USAPA ambassadors nationwide. (Those interested in Bartow County can reach out to ambassador Steve Dunn, of Cartersville, at gsdunn@bellsouth.net for more information.)

International growth of the sport can’t be understated, either, with Thomas and his wife, Joan, having recently returned from China after meeting with pickleball leaders in the country well-known for its table-tennis prowess.

“There’s about three million people playing in the United States now,” Jack Thomas said. “It’s been tremendous growth every year, and we think, ‘Well, it can’t grow that much going forward every year.’ But it just continues to grow even more than it was. It’s just amazing.

“The executive director and myself spent eight days in China a month or so ago. The Chinese government invited us over to help them start their national governing body and apply for membership in the International Federation of Pickleball. It’s amazing. No other sport is growing near at the rate this is.”

Overall, the sport is unsurprisingly most popular among Baby Boomers. Although the prevalence of it at the primary school level helped turn pickleball, which was only created in 1965, into a familiar sport for people across the generation gap.

While the USAPA looks to continue to increase its youth numbers, including a new partnership with AAU, it’s always going to be a favorite of the young at heart and those looking to keep their heart young.

“To me, that’s another plus,” Nancy Jordan, David’s wife, said of the health benefits. “Plus it’s a very social and friendly game, and you meet a lot of great people across the U.S.”