Did you know that pickleball is the fasting growing sport in the U.S.? I had no idea.
And if you have no idea what game I’m even talking about, here’s the Cliff Notes, cheat-sheet version: It’s a paddle sport played on a tennis court, but in less space; the ball is a whiffle, the net is lower than tennis, and the paddle is more ping-pong than badminton.
It’s a game for all ages, but everybody realizes it’s really a game for aging baby boomers with wobbly knees but fierce competitive spirits.
But don’t let the whiffle ball fool you. Pickleball is fast, furious and ferociously addictive.
And although my wife had recently taken it up, including four days a week this August, and loves it as much or more than golf(!) I’d never even seen a game until August 8.
On that day, to assuage my guilt and avoid being in a personal pickle, I went to support my spouse and friends at the Delaware Senior Olympics Pickleball tournament.
Holy sweat socks. I hadn’t seen so many lesbians in one place since a k.d.lang concert.
The 12-court arena at the Kent County Recreation Center was a veritable sea of short gray hair and knee braces. And of course, lots of non-lesbian players were on hand too, mixing with the tribe.
Do I have to tell you how impressed I was by the baby boomer daughter and her 86 year old mom both playing? And mom had a helluva serve. There are several age brackets to level the field (or court as it happens) with a variety of skill levels represented.
Prior to start of play, the giant gym radiated high energy, a dramatic din, cheers, and thwacking sounds of practice balls hitting paddles. Once matches began, from the bleachers there came whispered reverence for impressive play. Very Wimbleton-like.
I sat on a bench behind one of the courts to watch Bonnie and her picklepartner play.
As the match began I had to stifle my theatrical training and NOT wish our team “Break a leg!” for good luck.
The partner’s spouse tried to explain the rules to me. Like one of the choices to describe relationships on facebook, it’s complicated. Apparently, the few feet just beyond the net is the “kitchen” and the ball must bounce if it lands there. Otherwise, players can whack the ball back to kingdom come without a bounce.
Somebody yelled “stay out of the kitchen!” and I felt compelled to note that under different circumstances, Bonnie says that to me all the time.
Past the kitchen there are a zillion colored lines on the court, some for pickleball, some for other sports and frankly I don’t know how the players aren’t dizzy. But the volleys, serves, and dykes jumping up and down are fun to watch. Plus, there are bronze, silver, and gold medals to be won.
And as much as I joke, this is no sport for old ladies— these athletes are fast, strong, determined, focused and competitive.
Once the first match was over, one pair of players advanced and the other pair played in the loser’s bracket, a horridly inappropriate name which offended me. It should be called Survivor’s Bracket, Second Time Around, or at the very least, the Susan Lucci Bracket for the actress who always fails to win an Emmy. Loser’s an especially bad term since the second place team in each match has a chance to come back to the winning bracket. I don’t understand how that works, but I love it.
Besides avoiding getting hit in the pupik (Yiddish for belly-button) by a stray wiffle to the peanut gallery, my biggest thrill of the day was the announcement that the Rosenfeld’s Deli truck had arrived. Lunch, actual pickles, and hydration, now available.
As an added benefit, a masseuse was on hand to give complimentary massages to players. I far prefer a sport with a masseuse standing by instead of an ambulance.
Not that the game is injury-free. A couple of weeks ago Bonnie took a serve to the wrist and for three days her hand looked like a bowling ball.
I did notice that fashion plays a major role in the sport. You think I’m kidding? Most doubles teams wore day-glo green, pink, or purple matching shirts, with some teams coordinated down to their Hot Pink Gel-Rocket pickle ball shoes. Bonnie and her picklepartner did not have matching ensembles. Frankly, I think that held them back from achieving their true potential. Now, for their future games I’m the new costumer.
With the motto “Pickleballers Don’t Quit!” splashed throughout the program, instructions, and guides, plus spirit of fair-play shown by all the players, judges, and administrators, love for the game is quite evident.
Lots and lots of Rehoboth, Lewes, Sussex County gals played and helped out with the tournament—hopefully their names will appear elsewhere in the press. Likewise, the list of medal winners.
But for now, it doesn’t matter who won what. It was how they played the game— and that was, in a word, passionately.
As for me, I’ve been pickled before, but this was a great new experience.
Fay Jacobs is the author of As I Lay Frying—a Rehoboth Beach Memoir; Fried & True—Tales from Rehoboth Beach; For Frying Out Loud—Rehoboth Beach Diaries; Time Fries—Aging Gracelessly in Rehoboth Beach, and her newest book Fried & Convicted: Rehoboth Beach Uncorked.