Pickleball brings North Shore retirees together on court

Forget the golf course, the Murdo Frazer tennis courts were the retiree hot spot this summer.

Fringed by tall trees in a leafy neighbourhood near Edgemont Village, the courts are where a growing number of dinkers – a favourable term – meet to play pickleball three, four or more times a week.

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What’s pickleball, you say? It’s only the fastest growing sport in North America. A distant cousin to tennis, with pickleball the nets are lower by about four inches, the lines are closer and the games are shorter – making for less exertion all around. 

Allan Gauthier organizes matches for the 40-some-odd pickleball enthusiasts who drop-in daily during the favourable weather months at Murdo Frazer.

Gauthier caught the pickleball bug in California, where he flocks to in the winter. Fellow snowbirds brought the sport, which is gentler on the joints than tennis, from Arizona to the North Shore around 2007.

The pickleball backstory goes that the game started during the summer of 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Wash., at the home of former state representative Joel Pritchard. He and two friends returned from a golf game and found their families bored one Saturday afternoon.

A lost shuttlecock meant playing badminton was out the window, so they improvised with a Wiffle ball, lowered the badminton net, and fabricated paddles of plywood from a nearby shed.

The name pickleball is apparently in reference to Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen are chosen from the leftovers of other boats.

While the sport has been popular in retirement communities with warm climates for a while, North Shore Pickleball officially became a club last year. Today, the league has more than 250 members playing indoors six days a week year-round and every dry day outdoors in the summer.

Murdo Frazer boasts five pickleball courts that are always hopping. Gauthier, who is the club’s official statistician and vice president, breaks down the game for the uninitiated.

A pickleball game ends at 11 points, and you can only make a point when your side is serving – which is all done underhand. Oh, and players can’t volley in the “kitchen,” they have to let the ball bounce first.

That’s to stop someone with height on their side from slamming the ball back down in their opponents’ court. Pickleball is also a partner’s game.

“It’s more social because you are playing in doubles,” explains Gauthier.

The now 67-year-old says he had no interest in tennis or other racquet sports before pickleball came along. Running marathons was his thing until Gauthier’s knees couldn’t keep up.

“And the doctor said: ‘You have to choose – one or the other. I said, ‘I’m choosing pickleball … because it’s just so much fun,” says Gauthier, emphatically, against the clip clop rhythm of balls hitting a wooden paddle.

Pickleball also doesn’t feel like exercise to him, which is a win-win.

On a mid-August morning, some players on the Murdo Frazer courts are sporting knee braces.

“Well, I used to be a squash player and a tennis player and a badminton player, and then I got all my injuries on my knee – so I decided to slow it down,” says Salma Mitha, 56, of what got her hooked on pickleball.

Mitha gets her fix five times a week or more, and she’s not alone.

“It’s very addictive,” says Gauthier.

Pickleball appeals to those who have recently undergone hip or knee replacements, and can no longer play tennis. 

“So they come and play pickleball. You don’t have to run as much and it’s a heck of a lot more fun because you laugh so much,” promises Gauthier.

Anis Kanji enjoys the non-committal aspect of pickleball. Unlike tennis, you don’t have to make a date in advance, you can just show up at the court and sub into the game.

“This way it makes it so much easier to come anytime,” says Kanji. “You can play with different people.”

Superior pickleballers are called dinkers. They have mastered a soft shot, which just clears the net and drops into the non-volley zone.

Recently, some North Shore Pickleball members entered a seniors’ tournament in Kelowna and came home with some gold hardware. There are also national and provincial pickleball tournaments every year.

With fall in full swing, the pickleballers will soon migrate from Murdo Frazer to indoor courts at local recreation centres including Delbrook, John Braithwaite, West Vancouver, Gleneagles and Parkgate.

More information on the club is available at northshorepickleballclub.com.

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