By Laurie Paolicelli
Spring has officially sprung in Orange County, and with it comes the open invitation to get outdoors and do something. The garden calls to us, as do long walks beside the moss-covered stones on the banks of the streams and rivers that flow through our towns and country like arteries leading from the heart of it all to the rest of it all.
But there’s so much more. Pickleball, for instance.
Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. If you’re one of the very few who don’t know, pickleball is a sport played with a paddle and a plastic ball that combines elements of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong. It’s played much like tennis, either singles or doubles; the paddle is treated like a tennis racket and the ball is served then volleyed back across the net. Though pickleball has been around since about 1965, it feels as though it’s a sport that has become ubiquitous overnight. Pickleball began on Bainbridge Island, Washington where legend has it that Pickles, the resident cocker spaniel, would chase the errant ball. Older adults are drawn to it because it’s a sport less strenuous than tennis but one that still can be quite competitive. One of the advantages is that the sport can be played on existing tennis courts, both inside and outside with many centers and parks assigning set times for tennis and pickleball to be played.
Pickleball has gained in popularity over the last few years. The USA Pickleball Association estimates that more than 4.8 million Americans played pickleball in 2021. According to the Sport and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), pickleball participation grew by a whopping 21.3% last year as Americans looked for new ways to stay active during the pandemic.
“It’s growing like crazy in other parts of the world too,” says Stu Upson, Chief Executive of USA Pickleball, the sport’s national governing body. “There are 37 countries that are part of the International Pickleball Federation. That’s more than double where it was 18 months ago.”
Winkie La Force is a local pickleball devotee and an instructor in the sport. “At the Sportsplex in Orange County, there are about 15 individuals, all in our 70s, who play Pickleball there several times a week. Very frequently, when we enter tournaments, national, regional, and local, we bring home medals,” she says. “We call ourselves the ‘Hillsborough Gang.’ This is a multi-generation, healthy, good activity, and locals and visitors love to play.”
Rob Gluck, Carrboro resident and pickleball afficianado, agrees. “All ages, body-types, weights/heights, regardless of past sports experience, can play this game. The only real requirement is to have basic eye/hand coordination. You can never look a new person up-and-down and predict how good a pickleball game they’re going to play – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been fooled by looks, even though I know better!”
“In good weather, the primary courts at Ephesus can frequently be full, with 25 – 50 additional people waiting to get on, so the demand is easily there (and rapidly growing) for more facilities,” says Gluck.
Dedicated pickleball players, like Brené Brown, the vulnerability researcher and author, who co-owns a team in Austin, Texas, the ATX Pickleballers, hopes the increasing exposure does not change the spirit of the game.
She plays pickleball most days, crediting its competitive yet accessible nature as “vitally important” to her mental and physical well-being.
“It’s about connection, joy, and play — and the importance of play in a world where exhaustion and workaholism are status symbols,” she said. “To use my own term, it’s a wholehearted sport.”
If this sounds like the sport of you – and by all indications it probably is – opportunities to play pickleball in Orange County abound.
Indoor Pickleball Courts:
Community Center (3 Indoor Courts)
Hargraves (3 Indoor Courts)
Sportsplex, Hillsborough (6 Indoor Courts)
Outdoor Pickleball Courts:
Ephesus Park, Chapel Hill (6 Pickleball courts)
Wilson Park, Carrboro (4 Pickleball Courts/Shared Use with Tennis)
Southern Community Park (5 Pickleball Courts/Shared Use with Roller Hockey/Inline Skating)
Henry Anderson Community Park, Carrboro (2 tennis courts shared use)
There are also private courts at the Chapel Hill Tennis Club, The Farm and more.
If you need help visualizing the sport, here are some highlights from the 2021 US Open Men’s Singles gold match:
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.