Welcome to Jen Tries, a semi-regular feature in which Free Press columnist Jen Zoratti will try something new and report back. In this instalment, Jen Tries… pickleball.
It’s 3 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, and the gymnasium at Sturgeon Heights Community Centre is echoing with the pleasing, rhythmic "pop" sound of paddles making contact with pickleballs — neon plastic balls with holes, not unlike a wiffleball. Members of Winnipeg West Pickleball have just taken to the courts, where they will play for the next couple of hours.
It was that sound that first hooked Rose Sawatzky. Sawatzky, 49, is not only a bona fide pickleball champion — she was ranked No. 1 in Canada within a year of first taking up the game during a trip to Arizona in 2017 — she’s also an organization director for Pickleball Canada and a certified instructor who has kindly agreed to school me in what has fast become the hottest sport at community centres all over the continent.
Pickleball is a badminton-meets-ping-pong-meets-tennis hybrid that can be played indoors or outdoors. According to pickleball lore, it was made up by three Washington State dads in 1965 and named after Pickles the dog, who liked to chase balls. (There’s some low-stakes debate about the origin of the name; others say it comes from a crew term for a boat full of thrown-together rowers.)
Either way, everyone — and I mean everyone — is playing pickleball these days, from retired seniors and snowbirds to Academy Award winner Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s been dubbed "the fastest growing sport in North America." The New York Times wondered if it was the "perfect pandemic pastime."
"It’s a friendly sport," Sawatzky says. "No matter where you go, you always find people who are outgoing and having a great time. It’s a game that you can learn within an hour or two; it’s not something you have to train for. You can drop in, you can become part of a league. It’s a very low-cost sport to get involved with. People just love to get a bit of exercise and socialize at the same time." (Sawatzky says there are now about 23,000 registered players in Canada, but that number is likely low as there are other little pockets of players that aren’t captured.)
Indeed, the most attractive thing about pickleball is its accessibility. Age, gender, fitness level, physical ability — none of that matters. Pickleball is for everyone. You play on a smaller court than tennis, which is easy to move around quickly, and both the paddle and ball are lightweight. Grandparents can play doubles against grandchildren.
Tuesday’s courts are populated by veterans of the game as well as people who have only been playing for weeks or months. Sawatzky is an unfailingly encouraging coach. "You have great hand-eye co-ordination," she tells me, or "that was a good serve."
We tap rackets — a pickleball "high-five," if you will — often.
Pickleball is pretty easy to get the hang of, which is great news for me since I am definitely someone who has trouble pursuing things I’m not immediately good at — you know, that ol’ Type A chestnut. (Of course, if you want to become as excellent as Sawatzky, who plays competitively and moves around the court like lightning, you have to put the time in.)
It’s also wildly addictive. I don’t think a smile ever left my face. By the end of our two-hour lesson and game — which flew by — I was ready to join a club and get a vanity plate that says ‘luv 2 dink’ in honour of my favourite shot.
The dink is a soft shot that lands in your opponent’s no-volley zone, or "kitchen." It also yields some unitentionally hilarious Google results: "Dink like a pro," "five keys to successful dinking" and "basic dinks." (Yes, I am six years old.)
"The language does make people laugh," Sawatzky says. "You know, I have never found out why they call it dinking. We have pickleball shirts that have the verbiage on the back — like, ‘can you dink it?’ — and when you wear them out in public, people look at you kind of funny."
Anyway, as it turns out, I can dink it. But that’s not to say you can’t really whack the ball around in pickleball. When I go to retrieve an errant ball, a fellow player beats me to it. "Kill it," she stage-whispers before handing it back to me. "Don’t be ladylike."
One of my doubles opponents is Kevin Harrison, the president of Winnipeg West Pickleball. The club, which was founded in 2019, plays at Sturgeon Heights three days a week. In two years, the club has grown from 35 people to 185.
Harrison has noticed that the surging demand for pickleball is quickly outpacing the supply of courts in Winnipeg. In 2020, Winnipeg West Pickleball worked with Bourkevale Community Centre to establish six dedicated outdoor pickleball courts, which were used six days a week. When the club has to go inside for the winter, however, there are spots for 80 players at Sturgeon Heights, which rents out its courts to sports clubs like WWP versus running its own pickleball programming.
In order to properly expand the sport, Harrison says, there need to be dedicated pickleball facilities as there are in other cities in Canada. The lack of courts available at night, for one example, is a barrier to younger working folks (like me) getting into pickleball. Winnipeg West Pickleball is working on it, though, and Harrison says city councillors Kevin Klein and Scott Gillingham have been supportive.
Sawatzky, meanwhile, wants to see it become a recognized sport. She’s dedicated to helping people who have been bitten by the pickleball bug improve their game, regardless of the level they’re at.
"Any way I can help grow the sport, I do it."