Finding Purpose through Pickleball

East of the River Residents Say It’s More Than a Game

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Hillcrest resident Lisa Jenkins was anxious about going out and attending her usual in-person dance classes at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like most, she was physically and socially isolated by pandemic restrictions and the fear of getting sick. She had never heard of pickleball, but when a friend mentioned the opportunity to participate in a safe, outdoor activity she took the plunge and has been an avid member of the DC Pickleball community since.

Lisa Jenkins holds her paddle ready on the court. Photo: Lisa Jenkins.

Jenkins has always been a “quiet person” but her involvement in pickleball has immersed her in new friendships, advocacy work and teaching others, both young and old, about the sport.

The Game

Pickleball is a paddle sport that combines components of tennis, ping pong and badminton. Players hit and return a lightweight, perforated ball to their opponents across the net. It’s a versatile sport that can be played both indoors and outdoors, and players can choose to play against each other one on one in singles or with a partner in doubles.

While the court set up may look similar to tennis, the small, lightweight, rectangular shaped paddles and smaller court set it apart. While requiring athletic endurance and acute awareness of the ball, the smaller court also allows pickleball to be a lower impact activity that is less stressful for the muscles, tendons and joints.

Pickleball has been named America’s fastest growing sport by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), and its increasing popularity is apparent with both youth and older populations across the District. From public schools to recreation centers, kids and seniors alike have found a passion for the sport.

The Culture

Anacostia resident Mark Jackson has been a tennis player since he was eight and recently picked up pickleball. He felt “immediately welcomed” to the community and said he feels like he has known his fellow players all his life.

Camaraderie within the pickleball community breaks down barriers of age, athleticism and location. DC resident and Pickleball Ambassador Ruth Ellis said the sport is socially oriented due to the rotation of many different players across the small courts. Ellis also noted the “fragmented” nature of DC’s communities and said she has enjoyed seeing residents from different neighborhoods come out to play together.

“Among the many wonderful things about pickleball is how it connects people and brings people together from different walks of life and different communities,” Ellis said.

Mark Jackson poses with Ward 8 Council member Trayon Whote. Photo: Mark Jackson.

Managing Director of the DC Pickleball Club Scott Parker said that the increasing popularity of the sport contributes to its social aspect. The club hosts more than 40 people on the courts for several hours at a time each week which gives players time to converse and get to know one another, especially when they are off the court. He said the social component was not only what drove his love for the sport, but what inspired him to help others learn, too.

“A lot of people who play are neighbors, but they just haven’t met one another before because there wasn’t any occasion to do so,” Parker said.

Jackson emphasized the importance of these social connections, in addition to the phyical health benefits the sport provides, particularly for seniors in the District’s communities.

“There’s a tendency to forget about our seniors, but they’ve expressed an interest in it, and I think pickleball could definitely help people in the older age bracket become more active and hopefully live healthier and better lives,” he said,

Need for More Courts

There are very few dedicated pickleball courts in DC. Players say that the majority of the courts on which they play are shared with tennis players or basketball players. Residents have been actively engaged with the District Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) about expanding the facilities, but the rapid growth of the sports popularity is difficult to keep up with.

Players report that the limited number of existing courts are often crowded and that playing on other surfaces is difficult due to the lack of boundary lines and the special softer surface of a traditional pickleball court. Options for indoor courts are also important to give year-round access to the sport.

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed FY 24 “Fair Shot” budget includes $750,000 for four new pickleball courts and invests $14.2 million in efforts to increase and expand DPR’s programming. Jackson was discouraged to attend a Ward 8 ANC meeting and hear a local commissioner speak out against this funding citing a need for increased funds to curb crime in the neighborhood.

“As long as you’re constantly focusing on the negative, and don’t get me wrong, crime needs to be addressed, we will never have any sort of advancements or luxuries, such as pickleball, that the other quadrants of the city have,” Jackson said.

Ellis is also an advocate for more courts across the city as she often travels across the bridge to Arlington where there are more courts to play on. She emphasized her desire to play closer to home.

“I think DC needs to make that investment so we’re not coming over here spending our money in Arlington,” Ellis said of funding for additional courts. “I want to be staying in my city and playing in my community.”

Spreading the Word
Excited cheers filled the gymnasium at Ida B. Wells Middle School (405 Sheridan St. NW) during afternoon gym class as students lobbed pickleballs across the court. Head of physical education, Brian Cross, started incorporating pickleball into the rotation of sports at the school a few years ago because it provided opportunities for students of all ability levels to be active and have fun.

“There are some students who may not be as athletic, but they’re very good at being strategic with the paddle,” Cross said. “Some of them can’t run very fast or jump very high, but this sport brings out the ability for them to do other things here. It’s why I like introducing it to the students.”

Students at Ida B. Wells Middle School learn Pickleball skills from professional players. Photo: Sarah Payne.

Chief operating officer of the DC Pickleball Team, Adam Behnke, said while the sport was traditionally played by the older population, the pandemic, and people’s desire to find something active to do outdoors, pushed the sport to a more diverse age range including kids. He emphasized the importance of getting youth involved in the sport because it can be played throughout one’s life.

The sport’s accessible nature is also appealing for players with mobility constraints. Resident Ramius “Mac” McPhatter had a total hip replacement, something he says limits his ability to participate in sports, but says pickleball has proven to be a “lifelong sport” and something he can continue to play and share with members of his community.

“Just seeing the enthusiasm of people that have been introduced to this, that’s rewarding to me in itself and it drives me to keep on pushing the sport to the Anacostia community,” McPhatter said.

In addition to advocating for more courts, Ellis said her role as a pickleball ambassador also allows her to help teach the sport to beginners. Recently Ellis and Jenkins teamed up to teach a group of families and Anacostia High School students how to play.

Community connection, health benefits and new friendships are paramount to the District’s players, but Jenkins emphasized the fun remains at the center of it all.

“It’s a fun sport,” Jenkins said. “I love it and I’m hooked on it. If I could, I would play it every day.”

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Getting Involved
The District’s pickleball community is inclusive and rapidly growing. Washington DC Pickleball offers opportunities for residents to learn, play and compete in Pickleball across the District. The group meets at several locations across the city including:

  • Palisades Recreation Center (5200 Sherier Place NW)
  • Chevy Chase Community Center (5601 Connecticut Ave NW)
  • Emery Heights Recreation Center (5701 Georgia Ave NW)
  • Takoma Recreation Center (300 Van Buren St. NW)
  • Hearst Recreation Center (Quebec and Idaho St. NW)
  • Arthur Capper Recreation Center (1000 5th St. SE)
  • Rosedale Recreation Center (1701 Gales St. NE)
  • Edgewood Recreation Center (300 Evarts St. NE)
  • Turkey Thicket Recreation Center (1100 Michigan Ave NE)

The group hosts multiple play times each week based on ability level. Visit washingtondcpb.org for more information and to sign up.

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Sarah Payne is a reporter for Capital Community News. She can be reached at sarahp@hillrag.com.