Pick up your paddle and stay out of the kitchen.
If you play pickleball, that’s the lingo you’ll pick up, faster than this sport is sweeping courts across the states, indoors and out.
Here in Brunswick County, Carol Harpster is responsible for amping up the pace of pickleball popularity. As the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) District Ambassador for eastern North Carolina, Harpster helps to promote the sport throughout the district’s 28 North Carolina counties, from Brunswick County in the south to Gates County in the north. Before her newest appointment, she served as the pickleball ambassador for southern Brunswick County for several years. All duties are voluntary.
“I’m basically here to support each of the 11 ambassadors within the district and recruit more,” she says. “And to promote this wonderful sport along the coast.”
The latest progressive accomplishment here in the area is the opening of six new pickleball courts at Ocean Isle Beach Park in June, as part of the improvements made by Brunswick County Parks and Recreation. That’s six more courts in addition to the 15,000 indoor and outdoor courts already open for play across the country (at least one in all 50 states), as reported by USAPA.org. More impressive is the number of players hitting those pickleball courts: more than 2.5 million participants in the United States. According to the USAPA, that’s a 650 percent increase in participants over the last six years.
Why the robust stats? While pickleball has scored its fastest growth among the Baby Boomers, it’s really for all ages and is working its way into the collective competitive spirit of younger generations. Don’t let the “pickleball is only for seniors” stereotype fool you; this is not your average grandmother’s hobby, like bridge or knitting. You definitely break a sweat and increase your heart rate. In fact, a blog on usapa.org shared that one player, who wears a fitness tracker during matches, said two hours of pickleball is the same as walking 4 miles.
“It’s addicting because it’s so much fun and competitive,” Harpster says, “but at the same time, it’s easier on the body than other sports.”
That said, Harpster and her husband and pickleball partner, Rick, consistently play about six days a week on courts in Brunswick County and North Myrtle Beach. Rick is one of four USAPA ambassadors in Horry County, South Carolina.
The husband-and-wife team recently taught my two tweens and me a thing or two on a local pickleball court. Besides showing us the hand-eye coordination and cardio the sport provides, the two also demonstrated the passion (and patience) they have for sharing their love for pickleball.
“It really changed our lives,” Harpster says. “It’s something we can do together because I didn’t like golf. It keeps us active, and we’ve made so many friendships on and off the court. It’s a social sport!”
Harpster says she’s been playing for more than a decade and introduced Rick to pickleball after he couldn’t play volleyball like he used to. Over the years she’s competed in a tally of tournaments, among them the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, where she took home two gold medals.
Here along the coast, she was one of the original players to bring the game to North Myrtle Beach and into Brunswick County. In 2009 Joe Gullo, a snowbird from New York, offered to teach pickleball to local Fran Jenkins and a group of friends, and today, that small group has grown hundreds of picklers in North Myrtle Beach and Brunswick County.
“And we’re always trying to expand it even more by talking to new senior living communities, HOAs, rec centers and schools to get pickleball into gym class,” Harpster says.
After much encouragement and praise during my lesson with the Harpsters, their only request for this rookie was: “We want to see you playing again! Don’t stop playing!”
And that’s how these pros continue to grow pickleball in Brunswick County.
What’s with the name? The brainchild of former U.S. Representative Joel Pritchard of Washington State, pickleball was born in 1965 as a cure for his children’s boredom one Saturday afternoon. It’s said the name comes from either (pick one): Joan, Pritchard’s wife, who said the game, a combination of sports, reminded her of the pickle boat in crew whose oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats; or the Pritchards’ family dog, Pickles, who would chase the ball and run off with it. Some say the name is a meshing of both.
How do you play? Pickleball combines the elements of tennis, badminton, racquetball and ping-pong — except the court is about half the size of a tennis court, the net is lower than both badminton and tennis nets, the racquet is actually a solid paddle, and the ball is like a baseball-sized whiffle ball (which makes it a challenge to coordinate your swing with the slight bounce). Players serve under-handed below the hips from behind the baseline cross-court (like tennis) and behind the “kitchen,” or 7-foot box area that’s just behind the net. The receiving side must let the ball bounce once before hitting it, and when the ball is returned to the serving side, the ball must again bounce before being hit. The game’s volley can now ensue, with players moving up behind the kitchen, and ball play always happening behind the kitchen to avoid spiking. Each game is played to 11 points and must be won by two points.
Want to play or watch pickleball?
If you want to catch some local pickleball tourney action, the upcoming national tournament, Paddle at the Beach, takes place September 15 to 17 at the J. Bryan Floyd Community Center in North Myrtle Beach.
If you’d like to learn more about how to get involved with pickleball and where to play in our area, visit: usapa.org/what-is-pickleball-where-to-play-in-your-area/.