Grand Strand rec athletes find passion for pickleball

Nearly 100 local recreational athletes put themselves in a real pickle last week at Pepper Geddings Recreation Center – the Third Annual Rena Grant Pickleball with a Purpose Tournament.

Wait, pickle what?

That’s right, pickleball.

For the uninitiated, it’s an obscure, hybrid sport combining elements of tennis, badminton and racquetball (with a pinch of ping pong and Wiffle ball thrown in for good measure).

But for a growing number of players, particularly active seniors and middle-aged weekend warriors, pickleball is a key ingredient to preserving a happy life and healthy lifestyle.

Although relatively new to the Grand Strand, pickleball, like many of its players, is actually in its golden age. Conceived out of necessity in Washington State in 1965, pickleball’s founders were short on a complete set of sports gear but long on imagination when they used a mix of a badminton net, ping pong paddles and a Wiffle ball to create a new sports craze that eventually reached the East Coast.

As legend has it, pickleball got its name from the founding family’s cocker spaniel Pickles, who kept interrupting the game by reclaiming the plastic playing piece (after all, it was “Pickle’s ball”). It is best compared to shrinking a tennis court and the racquets down to a scale, while adding a 7-foot, no-bounce zone known as “the kitchen” to reduce the risk of injury.

“A lot of tennis players turn to pickleball when the game gets a little too fast for them,” said Linda Hopkinson, recreation director at Pepper Geddings. “The court is smaller and the ball doesn’t travel quite as fast, so it’s good exercise without having to run around as much. It’s also great for hand-eye coordination, reflexes and mobility. It’s also a lot of fun.”

Hopkinson has a deeper connection to the sport beyond being a local organizer and avid player. Her late mother and the tournament’s namesake is credited for introducing the game to the Grand Strand a little over a decade ago. After discovering pickleball during a visit to the retirement haven of The Villages, Fla., Grant made it her mission to import the sport to Myrtle Beach.

“Her goal was to get seniors off the couch and on the pickleball court,” Hopkinson recalled. “She started it at Crabtree (Recreation Center) and bugged and bugged and bugged enough people until they let her start it, and it later spread to the other facilities. She got so many people to try it and they fell in love with it.”

Jim Loving was one of Grant’s first unsuspecting converts. “She taught me how to play,” he said during Friday’s tournament opening ceremony. “I was one of those people who knocked on her door to find out what pickleball is all about.”

When Grant passed away in March 2017 at the age of 93 (she played pickleball with her walker until she was 92), her fellow pickleballers wanted to honor her memory with a fitting tribute. Pickleballer Nick Bucholtz, who helped organize the Rena Grant Pickleball with a Purpose tournament, best described the allure of the sport. “It’s a love affair,” he said.

That sentiment was evident as 32 doubles teams (many of them sporting silver hair and donning knee braces) played in Friday’s round for experienced pickleballers. Michelle Harrison and Rick Schenk defeated Robin Egerter and Chris Taylor in the championship match.

Saturday’s event for pickleball newcomers drew 16 teams and showed the sport isn’t just for the older set. Fifteen-year-old Trever Jobes teamed up with Julie Loebs (rules required him to play with an age 50-plus partner) topped Julie Booth and Bob Blue for the rookie tournament title.

But local youths were the big winners as the proceeds from tournament fees go to support scholarships for the City of Myrtle Beach’s rec programs. The funds allow underprivileged children to participate in sports leagues and camps at no cost. In only three years, the tournament has raised more than $1,000 for scholarships.

“I was thinking about how much it would have meant to mom to see everyone playing and having a good time for a great cause,” Hopkinson said. “She was so proud of all the local volunteers who helped make it so popular in Myrtle Beach.”

Including one of her first students. Not only did Loving get an enthusiastic introduction to the game of pickleball, he also discovered a passion for growing the sport locally. He is now the president of the Carolina Coastal Pickleball Association, which is hosting a regional tournament for the USA Pickleball Association.

“We want to make Myrtle Beach the No. 1 destination for pickleball,” Loving said.

Photos by Janet Morgan/myhorrynews

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