Silly Name, Great Game
Pickleball Fun in Fairfield
Betsy Hulme, coordinator of pickleball for Fairfield at the Bigelow Center, starts off the game with partner Gerry Callahan.
Photos by Stan Godlewski
Did you ever, as a kid, make up a game? You’re standing on a field with some neighborhood friends, kicking the dirt on a summer afternoon and wondering what could possibly make the day less boring. And then you see a piece of wood. Someone says: “Hey, that piece of wood looks cool. Let’s make up a game. Here are the rules. Here are how many pieces of wood are needed for the game.” And as the minutes go by and the ideas start to fly, your new, pickup game is born and you play all summer, enjoying hours upon hours of fun.
You could say that pickleball started that way, only the kids were adults: three dads in 1965 (Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum), hanging out on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle. They were looking for an activity that families and friends could participate in, so they found a whiffle ball and some paddles and started making up rules for a game, deciding on “pickleball” for a name. Common belief is that the name was in honor of Pritchard’s family cocker spaniel, “Pickles” who loved to chase stray balls. However, Pritchard’s daughter stated in an interview that they were really “just looking for a nutty name.” But by the time some journalists tried to debunk the myth, the Official Pickleball Handbook had already been printed, so they just left the original story alone.
Now, 53 years later, pickleball is not just a game, it’s a sport that has spread quickly in the U.S. from west to east, arriving in Fairfield in 2012. At that time, Margaret Andrews, program coordinator at the Bigelow Senior Center, was talking to her friend and retired tennis pro, Diane Sullivan, who suggested that the center might be a perfect place for active seniors to play pickleball. Andrews said ‘pickle what?” But after seeing a video of the game, she was inspired to host viewings at the center to gauge interest. “It just caught on from there,” says Andrews. So, with funds secured for whiffle balls and nets, pickleball was launched, and volunteers happily got to work taping the gym floor to create two badminton-sized courts. Now, say “pickleball” to someone in Fairfield and they either know of someone who has played or they have played themselves.
I had to see this game for myself, so I went over to the Bigelow Center. What I imagined was this: senior citizens shuffling about a small court and using a ball that made a hollow “chink” sound when it was lopped over the net and hit the floor. What I found was anything but that: instead, I witnessed a fast-paced, competitive sport with participants ranging anywhere from 50 to 93-year-old Connie, who has been playing at the center since the beginning.
Betsy Hulme, coordinator of pickleball at Bigelow and USAPA ambassador for Fairfield confirmed what I experienced. “It’s a game of patience and unforced errors, all wrapped up in problem solving,” she explains. According to this former PE teacher, now certified pickleball instructor, this is just another way to stay active. It doesn’t take the place of other activities. In fact, she says, “we still play tennis; it has helped our tennis games.” Right now the center has 125 players, organized by skill level, and about 50 of them travel from nearby towns to play year-round.
Clubs in the area are also getting in on pickleball. Fairfield resident Karen Paloian, who got hooked on it while playing in California, is now an avid player at Brooklawn Country Club. “It’s like playing ping pong on the ground,” she says, explaining the challenge of net play, “dinking” and the underhand serve. In addition, the town, with the help of Parks and Rec head Gerry Lombardo (now retired), worked with Hulme and Fairfielder Maryann Charmov to convert one tennis court on Tunxis Hill into four dedicated courts.
Bigelow Center members Bill Cox, Maryann Charmov, Barb Markelz, Mary Martinik, Alan Schur, Jerry Whitlock, Betsy Hulme, John Hursh, Gayle Murphy, and Gayle Sullivan were winners at the May CT Masters games.