Pickleball: The Crack Cocaine of Sports

As I rose from the wet, slick court, I scrutinized my wrist. Not only did it hurt like hell, but an odd-looking bump had already formed. And it was swelling fast. Just before I fell, I’d run backwards to retrieve a lob, slipped, hit a chain link fence, and point-loaded much of my weight onto my outstretched left hand. According to the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, “The wrist is made up of eight small bones which connect with the two long forearm bones called the radius and ulna. Although a broken wrist can happen in any of these 10 bones, by far the most common bone to break is the radius. This is called a distal radius fracture by hand surgeons.” Six pain-filled hours later, I got word that (1) I had a distal radius fracture and (2) it would likely require surgery. My first thought after I hung up the phone…

I’m not going to be able to play pickleball.

At the age of 54, less than a year after I took up the crack cocaine of sports, I’d broken a bone for the first time in my life and would spend the next six weeks in left-arm-useless misery. Every time someone asked about the pink cast, I smiled, answered, then encouraged the person to try pickleball.

According to legend, an overly detailed book called History of Pickleball, and a YouTube video, in the mid-sixties, three active guys residing on Bainbridge Island made up a new sport in order to stave off their kids’ boredom, which they named after a dog that loved the wiffle ball (or another equally odd sport-naming story). Over 50 years later, it has spread to every state and at least 15 countries and, with over three million players, is the fastest growing sport in America. It’s played with a slightly-larger-than-ping-pong paddle and a three-inch diameter holed plastic ball on a badminton-size court with a two-inches higher than tennis-height net.

USAPA Places 2 Play Map

My pickleballiversary is December 12, 2018. That evening, I arrived at the Mt Erie Elementary School gym in jeans and a t-shirt, planning simply to watch and learn. But Paula Plumer, a recent convert, had other plans. She handed me a paddle, suggested we practice hitting in a hallway, and convinced me to give a game a go. As I drove away afterwards, I counted up the hours until I could play again. Since then, I’ve treated nearly everyone I know as a prospective player, introducing at least a dozen persons to the sport. I feel a bit like Jimmy McCann from Stephen King’s Quitter’s Inc., except without the accountability and amputations. Six months later, Paula suggested I check out another of the places to play in Anacortes–Skyline courts. Phyllis Robillard, who, along with her husband Bill is a United States of America Pickleball Association (USAPA) ambassador, successfully drilled a crucial tip into me that day: don’t back up from the “kitchen” (non-volley zone) line. It’s common for seasoned players to provide suggestions to beginners to help them improve. Implementing others’ input has made me a better player.

Not only does pickleball have some seemingly unusual rules about when and where you can do what, as with tennis, players are assigned ability-based ratings (in 0.5 increments up to 5.0/Open). Although raters will rate players for a fee, ratings usually result from one’s performance in USAPA-sanctioned tournaments and are based on a player’s skill at various strokes and shot types, consistency, and strategy and may differ depending on the category: doubles, mixed doubles and singles.

On August 4, 2019, nearly a year to the day that I first played outdoors at Skyline, my husband Scott and I teamed up at the Senior Games in Lacey. Seven 3.5-level teams vied for gold, silver and bronze in the 50-54 age group. Temperatures were in the mid-eighties when my 6’7″ husband and (5’4″) I took the court at Rainier Vista Park. It was conspicuously breezy, which worried me. Pickleball is a friendly game filled with polite, good-sported people, and that proved to be true for every best of three match we took part in that day. Our first opponents were Bunny and Mike. Scott and I chose to “stack” which is a way of positioning to keep each person on the same (left or right) side of the court instead of switching. In our case, it was so that for large-wingspan Scott to hit all of the shots between us with his strong forehand. This first match, which could easily have gone the other way went to three games. We rebounded from a two-point deficit (7-9) in the third to win 11-9. Second, we took on Debbie and Neil from East Wenatchee, who we bested in two games. Finally, we faced the top-ranked Dukeharts, who’d earned a bye the first round. It was during a timeout in the second game that I knew we’d gotten into Jodi Dukehart’s head. Grabbing my Gatorade bottle from the back of their side, I heard her say to her husband, “They’re more like 4.5 players.” I hid a smile as I returned to our side. I’m no better than a 3.5 player, and Scott is 4.0-ish, as is Doug Dukehart. Fortunately, we won both games, then got to rest for nearly an hour while the others battled it out in the consolation bracket, where we reunited with Debbie and Neil in the gold medal match. By then, they’d figured us out. Neil joined Scott in poaching every shot he could get his paddle on and they hit every shot possible to me, a smart strategy. In the end, we came out on top, but things could have gone wrong at several points during play. Scott’s determination meant no paddle tapping (it’s a thing) or smiling, only occasional calls of “good shot” were allowed.

Pickleball is an extremely addictive sport in which:

  • you can’t judge a book by its cover
  • nobody cares about anybody else’s non-pickleball accomplishments or socioeconomic status
  • everyone cares about everyone else’s sportsmanship and effort

And, to me, Pickleball Is…Life.


4 thoughts on “Pickleball: The Crack Cocaine of Sports

    • Cindy,
      That makes my day, so thank you so much. Funny thing, when I asked for the pink cast (one of many, many color choices), I thought that if it was too much, I could switch colors at the next remove and reform session; however, that never happened, so I ended up with the most conspicuous cast ever for the entire six weeks :-). It was a great conversation starter at least.

  1. Pingback: Ratings, Probability and the Algorithm of Pickleball | Island Unseen

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