A recent article in The New Yorker asks “Can Pickleball Save America?” (July 18, 2022). I don’t know about America but here is how it saved me.
In November, 2021, my wife Jenny said to me “Jason, you need to come to the Y with me. You’re not healthy. You’re languishing.” I resisted going, mainly because I’m competitive and not into just running, swimming or lifting weights. I’m also communal, and not looking for solitary exercise. One of the high points of my week had been playing basketball at the Y on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during lunch hour. Covid shut that down. When it opened back up, we had to wear masks; most of the old crew wasn’t there and I could hardly breath in a mask so I stopped going.
Jenny had a point. I was languishing. I was eating and drinking too much, not exercising, and not having much fun. That hadn’t started with Covid. The roots of my malaise went deeper. By profession I’m a presbyterian pastor. By gifting I’m good at relationships. And, I think, I’m decent at being a friend; at least I value friendship. But since we moved to Redmond in August 2015, I have struggled to make friends. Sure I had my church community; the parishioners are great and we have real community. And I had my old tried and true friends from growing up on Camano Island. But in the making-friends-in-my-east-side-community department I was a big fat 0.
Maybe that was because uprooting after thirteen years of building friendships and community in Indianapolis was a kind of trauma. Maybe that was because the soil of community was rocky in Redmond. Maybe that was because our kids are grown and out of the house so we don’t have that connecting point. Maybe that was because there are a lot of introverts and technical left-brained people in Redmond and I’m an extrovert, non-technical, right-brained creative; we don’t share a lot of common ground. Maybe that was because of the infamous “Seattle Freeze.” I expect it was a combination of all the above. Then Covid hit and made it worse. With the stay-at-home order I was shut up in my apartment which was also my office and my wife Jenny’s office, and, for a while, where our church worship services were held when all we did was live streaming.
In any case, by November 2021, I was languishing. I was overweight, depressed, disconnected. My mental healthy was low. I’m tough and I managed as well as could be expected. I thought I was doing OK. Jenny saw through that and she pushed me to go with her to the Bellevue Y off 148th St. I agreed to go one time. Jenny went to her stretching class that started at 9:00am. I wandered down to the gym thinking that maybe I would shoot some hoops.
Pickleball at the Y
There were some people playing a game with nets. When I opened the door they waved me in and asked if I wanted to play. Two of them, a husband and wife, Bob and Marilyn, who are both in their eighties invited me to join them in a game. I had played pickleball a few times in my life, but only singles, and I didn’t know any of the rules or strategy of how to play. Bob and Marilyn were my first coaches, encouraging, kind and fun. Younger people were playing too. I played doubles with a gal named Jane; she told me what to do while we played, “run in now” and “let the ball bounce before you hit it.” Everyone was really nice. I enjoyed myself. And decided to come back the next day since they played every day from 6:30-9:30am.
I came back, and kept coming back every morning I could. I learned the game and got better. I noticed that the best players showed up early to play. So I started getting up earlier and earlier. Jenny was happy to see me engaged. But eventually I left so early that she couldn’t join me. Her dream had been that we would go to the Y together and exercise, and now I was racing off without her. In spite of her frustration at her shattered dream, she was glad that I was getting two plus hours of exercise three or four times a week and that I was having so much fun. I called it “recess,” my favorite class when I was in school.
I enjoyed learning the game, growing in technique. My competitive side was flourishing, as I tested myself against the better players. But best was getting to know the people in my first pickleball community. There is Joe and his wife Tianie . Joe sold a steel manufacturing business in China and now invests in real estate. They were some of the best players. There is Roger who could use either hand to hit the paddle. He and his wife had our pickleball group over to his lovely home and garden on Mercer Island. There is Ray, who was precise and effortless in his play and made his own paddles out of plywood; he gave me one. He was another of my first coaches. There is Gwen the doctor who might be in her sixties or seventies but who runs like she is thirty. There is Vadim the accountant who has wicked shots. Vadim is one of my most competitive opponents. Nancy, Amanda, Angela and Nan, whose roots are in China, pushed me to get better and made every game fun. One of my favorites is a Jewish gal named Lillian. She’s in her eighties, but spunky, pretty and fun to talk with. She still plays even though her back is crooked and she feels pain in her legs sometimes. What an inspiration! I could go on and on with names.
It was a real community, one of the first I had experienced on the east side. Young and old, from all over the world, came together over a game. The community stretched beyond the gym. Penny invited me to attend the annual Christmas Party for the pickleball group she hosts at her home. Jenny and I had fun meeting people, hearing stories, talking and laughing. It was the first party we had been invited to since we had moved to Redmond outside of our church community. There were other ways that community spilled over from the gym. Amanda and her friends have gone on church hikes.
Nancy and a big group of her friends attended the Camano Art Association’s Studio Tour in May.
Vadim and I had lunch the other day at Panera. He shared the story of his family immigrating from Ukraine when he was in his late teens. We talked about the war in Ukraine, our families and work.Vadim told me that he remembered me wandering into the gym that first day; it turns out he was one of the people who have invited me to play. I had forgotten that. Ray invited Roger and I to join him on his boat for opening day of crabbing season. We met in Everett and enjoyed a morning of fishing, crabbing, and being on the water.
My pickleball community ballooned in the summer.
Playing at Redmond Senior Center
Walking the Sammamish River Trail in the spring of 2022 I saw people playing at the two pickleball courts at the Redmond Senior Center; the senior center had been torn down to make way for a new facility. But the courts were still there. Pavel and Masha welcomed me. I struggled playing outside for the first time. I was used to the indoor game. I kept hitting the ball out of bounds. Pavel and Masha were part of a WhatsApp group for Pickleball players who played in the evenings, around 5:00pm. I hadn’t heard of WhatsApp and since I’m not big on Apps so I didn’t download it right away. Masha would text me when they were playing and because the court is just a few blocks from our apartments it was easy to run down. Or I’d just stop by after work to see if anyone was playing.
There were good players there who played there: another Pavel and his son Alex, Ubhay, Tanuj, Raghava, Moe, Ivan and Alicia, Udit, Mithun and AP among others. When we weren’t playing, we’d sit on the chairs or grass and chill, get to know each other. Many of them it turned out where left-brained, technical people who worked for Microsoft, Google, Amazon and other tech companies like that. But we shared a love for a common game. Pickleball brought us together. Whole families would come by. AP brought his daughter Aditi, Pavel brought his son Alex. I met Rajiv, his wife and his daughter one evening. He’s a very good player, maybe a 4.0 or 4.5 on the rating scale. There was a few weeks when Rajiv wasn’t around. When he showed up he shared that his father had passed away and that he had spent the last three weeks in India. It was special to be able to talk through that hard situation.
One day I stopped by the Redmond Community Center courts to see what was happening. A guy named Gary was playing with a couple of friends. They said they’d wait around for me so I raced home, got changed. Gary’s friends ended up taking off after a few games, but a gal named Angie showed up with her daughter Ella and we had a blast, playing for a couple of hours till dusk. It was a blast. Even though he lives in Seattle, Gary kept making the drive over to play in Redmond. He’d always bring a snack like watermelon to share. Angie and Ella and her son Oliver were regulars by now. Community, even friendships, were being built around a game. Newcomers were welcomed in.
One day Sanjay, who is from India and about my age, showed up to play. He didn’t have a good paddle and was new to the game. But he had played lots of badminton and he picked up the game fast. Once when I was playing doubles with Sanjay he said “Fight” to me. I didn’t know what he meant. Maybe he thought I wasn’t being competitive enough, or that I was slacking or something like that. It turns out that “Fight” is a term used in Cricket. It’s like yelling “Let’s go!” in the middle of a basketball or football game. So I started saying “Fight” to him when he was playing. We had a lot of fun with that.
So by now I’m playing about five days a week, morning and evening. My legs are tired, but I’m having fun. I’m losing weight at what I call my “two-a-days” like when I was playing football. I learned about the pickleball courts at the International School from my friends at the Y.
Playing at The International School
The International School in Bellevue has six courts. People get started around 7:00am and the good players show up after 9:00am. Many of my friends from the Y invited me to check it out; they prefer to play outside when the weather is nice. So I started going to the International School in the mornings. The competition there can be stiff, which I love. One day I met a guy named Steve who is my age and a very good player, a 4.0-4.5. We played some games together. The next day he showed up again and we paired up and played some very fun competitive games. Steve helped me out with lots of higher-level technique and strategy. I enjoyed his personality and our style of play worked well together. He and his wife Illana seemed to know almost everyone at the International School. I learned later they had grown up in Bellevue and really did know most of the pickleball players. One day Ilana had to leave early so Steve asked if I could give him a ride home, which I was happy to do. I learned more of his story hanging out in the backyard of their home that looks out over a lake. He’s and Ilana are teachers and were leaving the next week to fly to Costa Rica to finish the second year of a two year assignment teaching at an international school. I offered to take him to the airport. He said, “really, it will be awfully early, like 4:30am.” I said, “No problem. I’m an early riser, usually up around 3:00am and when we lived in Indy my friend and neighbor Mike and I would always drive each other to the airport for early flights.”
The day before they left Steve and I played pickleball at the international school till about noon. Then he and Ilana took me to lunch. First we stopped at an AM/PM to get a slushy, mixing cherry and coke flavors. It was delicious! Then they treated me to a tasty meal at a Chinese restaurant. Ilana shared with me her rich Jewish heritage and remarkable creativity. She’s written a couple of books and her and Steve both paint. They both paint as a past-time and it was fun to talk about that. We talked about our kids too. Then we went to their lake and enjoyed the refreshing water. Steve and Ilana eventually swam across the lake and back. I wasn’t up for that since my legs were starting to cramp. All in all, it was a super fun day of friendship. When I got home I shared with Jenny what a fun day I had had and told her I wanted her to meet Steve and Ilana when they come back in a year.
Camano Pickleball Club and the Camano Cup
This summer I also became a member of the Camano Pickleball Club. I figured that it would be fun to play pickleball when I’m on my Island. I even signed up for my first tournament, the Camano Cup, which is happening in about ten days from now. My doubles partner is Taylore, a thirty something year old who started playing pickleball about three months ago at the Y. I saw that he had a high ceiling and that he would become a very good player. He had recently moved to Redmond and it was fun to be able to welcome him into this place. Taylore and I’ve been playing at the International School in the morning and Perrigo Park in the evenings to develop our game.
For fun I put out on Facebook that I was looking for a sponsor. My old friend Dismas Smith responded that his business This Coffee Life would love to sponsor us.
They are going to outfit us in T-shirts with a “Fueled by This Coffee Life” logo for the tournament. You can see that announcement here:
I took a few days of vacation at the end of July to train for the tournament in Sun River, OR, with my college friends and baseball teammates Scott Miller and Kent Wieber. The complex in Sun River was impressive with fifteen courts and lots of good players. We had a blast competing again. And I was able to explain why the game always starts with the server closest to Bainbridge Island.
It’s fun to think that at my age (I’m fifty three) I can compete again seriously. There are many tournaments in Washington, which has made Pickleball our state sport, and across America. I’ve met a few pro players older then me. I told my congregation recently that my goal is to go pro. I was only half-joking. Why not shoot for the stars?
Competition is great. But at the end of the day the best part of pickleball for me is the community. The game brings us together. Community and friendships form there. A bunch of my pickleball friends from the east side are coming up for the tournament. AP and Gary, Ivan and Moe, Angie and her daughter Ella, Mithun and Chai are playing in it. I’m excited to sharing my Island with them. A friend on Camano who has a private pickleball court is opening it to us on Saturday so that we can warm up. On Saturday evening my brother Jed and his wife Renae are hosting a big feast at their home for my east side friends.
A couple of nights ago, I played for the last time at the old Redmond senior center courts. They are being shut down for the building of the new center. Sanjay came by to tell us that the next day he was flying to India and would be gone for a year. We hugged him and told him that we would miss him and encouraged him to be an ambassador for pickleball in India. There were six of us as the evening light fell. I was playing with Sanu, who I had just met that evening against two young athletic guys. We held our own and inched ahead at the end. We won on a drop shot I made that hit the net and fell over. I yelled like I had won the Superbowl and we all hugged, connected on WhatsApp, said our goodbyes and headed home. It was epic.
When I say that pickleball “saved me” I don’t mean that in the ultimate sense, in the way that as a Christian I believe Jesus Christ redeems us from our empty lives filling our hearts with joy, hope and love. I know that pickleball can’t fill the deep loneliness of heart that only the personal God can fill. But in a penultimate way, it has saved me. I’ve lost over 20 pounds, my mental health is much better because of recess, I’m connecting in meaningful ways to people. I’m thankful for my community centered around pickleball courts and the new friends that I look forward to traveling with for years to come.
My family is even getting behind my new passion. For my birthday in May, my kids went in together and bought me an expensive Paddletek paddle. Jenny bought me some clever shirts, a pickleball hat for sunny days, a book on pickleball technique. She even let me play the morning of my anniversary date. I wore one of her shirts of course :).
It seems as if she no longer resents my new love for pickleball. She’s happy for me. Matter of fact, she’s agreed to be my shoe sponsor for the Camano Cup tournament. After all, she says, “I’ve been buying you shoes for the past thirty years of our marriage.”