Pickleball’s popularity surges in the Roaring Fork Valley | AspenTimes.com

Pickleball’s popularity surges in the Roaring Fork Valley

Scott Condon The Aspen Times

Pickleball players in the Roaring Fork Valley are well aware their sport is perceived by the uninitiated as an activity for people who are long in tooth and short of wind. Oh, and maybe creaky of knee.

Go ahead and laugh, they say, chances are the rest of us will join them on the courts sooner than later, regardless of age.

They've got numbers on their side. Pickleball has been dubbed the fastest-growing sport in the United States.

And for good reason, said some of the roughly 30 participants sharing four courts in the Basalt Middle School gym one recent Friday evening.

"It's played on a smaller court than tennis. It's easier to play. Basically, it's fun," said Clyde Albert, the president of the Roaring Fork Pickleball Association, when discussing theories on why the sport has taken off. The association's email list has 128 names and many of those are couples, so actual participation is greater, he said.

Courts are in short supply, so people from New Castle to Aspen have converged in Basalt throughout the winter and early spring for the Friday evening games the past four years. They play doubles. The games — a combination of tennis, table tennis and badminton — are fast-paced and players get a break of maybe 10 minutes in between games before they are paired with a different partner on a different court.

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The game is played on a smaller court than tennis, with a Wiffle ball and custom paddles. The first thing a newcomer notices is that there are more volleys than is typical in tennis.

Social game — and competitive

It requires quick reflexes, said Bonnie Scott of the El Jebel area.

"It reminds me of giant ping-pong," she said.

John Fitzpatrick of Basalt is an imposing sight on the court. He stands about 6 feet 6 inches tall and looks like an older and slightly mellower Jaws — the bad guy in a couple of James Bond flicks. He's got an intense look as he crouches waiting for a serve or volley and he gives the ball a solid whack.

"I was never a tennis player," Fitzpatrick said. But he and his wife, Maureen, saw pickleball being played in Arizona on a vacation five years ago and got hooked. They carry a net, Wiffle ball and extra paddles with them on vacations, and have little trouble finding pickleball tourneys.

It's a great way to meet people who they otherwise wouldn't meet on the their travels, Maureen said. "It's very social."

Russ Mineo of New Castle takes the game seriously. He is an ambassador for the sport, according to his USA Pickleball Association business card. He acknowledges the social aspect, but says there's that and more for him.

"I play for the competition," he said with a grin.

Easier on body than tennis

Nearly everyone agrees that pickleball is popular, in part, because it's easy on the body.

"I'm at the right age," Maureen Fitzpatrick said. "I'm not playing basketball anymore. I'm doing 100 percent pickleball."

It didn't take long for John Fitzpatrick to get back on the court after getting a knee replaced a few years ago. He appreciates the shorter court.

"You don't have to run as far," he said.

Several players in Basalt said they had gone through knee replacements.

"You can play this after getting all sorts of things replaced," Maureen Fitzpatrick said.

Bruce Pearson of Blue Lake recently had two knee replacements and is currently receiving chemotherapy. That hasn't kept him off the pickleball court. He is interested enough that he attends clinics to hone specific aspects of his game. He said he likes the soft and short game — finesse rather than power.

Pearson and his wife started playing in Basalt three or four years ago when there were just a handful of couples showing up. The numbers have steadily increased, he said.

Attracts all kinds

Joe Edwards discovered pickleball three years ago and sometimes plays on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays in Carbondale and Basalt.

"It's almost addictive," he said.

When watching the fiery former Pitkin County commissioner and retired attorney, it's clear he brings the same intensity to the court.

"Most people don't try to get an ace serve, and I do," Edwards said. He's worked on the velocity of his serve, along with topspin and placement.

The Wiffle ball often comes off Edward's racket in the same fast and furious manner that he hurled questions at developers when he championed Aspen-area growth control in the 1970s and '80s.

If Edwards is an unlikely candidate for pickleball, it proves the point that the sport appeals to a wide variety of people. Still, he said he often gets blank stares when he tells people about it.

"They've never heard of it, or they've heard of it and don't know anything about it," he said.

Bad rap

Edwards, like many of his colleagues, poked fun at himself and fellow players when asked what attracted him to the sport. After listing reasons for its appeal, he added, "Besides, what else are you going to do when you're retired?"

Fitness instructor Eileen Hinchliffe looks like she could participate in any sport she chose, but she doesn't take herself too seriously. Pickleball is "lots of old people running around smashing the ball," she quipped.

Scott disputes that it is a sport for codgers. She is one of the younger regulars at Basalt as a 40-something-year-old. There are plenty of people in their 30s who play, they just have different priorities on a Friday night, she said. They will emerge as the weather warms and pickleball courts are established outside in towns throughout the valley.

"It get a bad rap, this game," she said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

GETTING THE SCOOP:

To learn more about pickleball events in the Roaring Fork Valley go to rfpickleball.com and Roaring Fork Pickleball Association on Facebook.