"Wanna play?" asks the pepper-haired senior. "We need another person to make up a foursome." After challenging my quads in an energetic fitness class, I find myself gazing into the adjacent gym. Beyond the wall of windows is a set of courts, three of which are filled by active 55 plus-ers who, with super-sized paddles, whack little plastic balls over low-slung nets. A fourth court is vacated, short by one person to complete the two-paired team. Will it be me? Should I give it a go? Although I've never played before, it looks simple enough - kind of like badminton, tennis and ping-pong all rolled into one. Even its name, pickleball, sounds kid-like corny - reminds me more of a cheesy-dill appetizer I made last Christmas than a court sport.
My confidence and cockiness builds after checking out my opponents. Although I'm "boomer-age appropriate," I still have a fondness for fitness - and these people are at least a dozen years my senior. How hard can beating them be?
"It's all about strategy," my partner explains, after I quickly lose the first serve. This aged, yet agile, athlete has quicker reflexes than a super sniper and more patience than a saint. He takes a few moments to outline the plays: drive shots, high lops, shallow drops, overhead slams. "Just follow my lead - stay back when I am, move to the net when I do, and keep out of the kitchen." Finally, a familiar term! But unlike my favourite haunt at home, this net-close territory is strictly out-of-bounds when smashing the ball back. Assuming, I ever get the chance!
Before I know it, the score is 10-zip (for the other guys!) and I'm eating my previous words.
Once again, our opponents have the serve - possibly (probably) for the last time. While my partner gets ready to receive the ball, I move up in the court, making sure my feet are well behind the no-no line. With my wide-stance and attack position secured, I prepare for the next whirl of the wiffle ball. Soaring adrenaline, racing heart, sweaty brow - based on my induced physical symptoms, you'd think I was competing in an Olympic event!
Pickleball has been having this effect on players for nearly 50 years. Since 1965, when it was created on Washington's Bainbridge Island and named after Pickles, the family's ball-retrieving pooch, it has gained popularity. In February 1968, a Seattle-based business began marketing the game and selling equipment. In 1972, copyright was given to the initial set of rules. And, in 1987, the official United States of America Pickleball Association was launched.
The sport has also received a fond following closer to home.
"Over the past six years, it's grown from three small B.C. programs (in Guilford, Kirkbride and Coquitlam) to a total of 80," explains Chuck Lefaive. "And it's also spread to the other provinces."
Chuck does his part to promote the sport both as the founder of the national association (www.pickleballcanada.org) and as a familiar face at the South Surrey Recreation Centre where he reaches out to other venues and teaches all ages.
"Most P.E. teachers know of the game and, if they could, would squeeze it into the curriculum," he explains, while rattling off the notable list of elementary schools where he's shared his pickleball pointers and passion.
"At present, with the seniors and schools, we're ranked the 4th largest program in North America."
Based on how my inaugural game is going, I doubt I'll add to these stats. But there's no excuse. Like this activity hangout, most city-based recreation centres offer multi-generational programs that are reasonably priced, especially for the senior crowd. There are even a few where I can feel like a true Olympian: the once-skating arena of Richmond Oval, Creekside Recreation Centre, a.k.a. the athletes' village, and Vancouver's Hillcrest Recreation Centre, where the world-class curling took place.
I can also take this sport further afield - Washington, California, Arizona and even Florida. And when I reach my golden years, I can rally my way around the senior centres - from North Delta's Kennedy House, across the water to play with the Sechelt Seniors, or even Alberta-bound to challenge the folks at Canmore's Senior Centre!
Tournaments are also a popular pickleball pastime. The first Canadian National was held in Calgary in July. The Third Senior Games was held a month later in Trail, B.C., and coming up on September 17 is the annual recreation tournament here at South Surrey Recreation Centre.
Maybe by then I'll be ready to sign up! But first, I have to get a few games under my belt and this one does not have a happy ending. Even though we're totally total shut out (yes, 11-0 for the other guys), it changes my view on a couple of things. Firstly, never again will I underestimate the ability of a fit, fun-loving (and somewhat competitive) senior and, secondly, from now on, whenever I see a little plastic ball, an oversized paddle and a low-slung net, I'll prepare for the surge. It's called Pickleball Passion, and I've got it!
SEPTEMBER 2011 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND