Pickleball gives metro Atlanta older adults activity, socialization

Report: Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports. Video by Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

It’s kind of hard to get Diane Richardson on the phone for about three months out of the year — at least in the mornings. At the end of each December, she heads south from her Woodstock home to Florida to enjoy sunshine and nonstop pickleball in Sarasota.

She can’t talk early because she’s headed to the court decked out in modified tennis garb to send a plastic ball whistling across a net at top speed for three hours. And she takes her appearance seriously.

“Pickleball attire — we’ve all gotta be looking sharp,” she said. “We’re not out there in little T-shirts and shorts.”

Diane Richardson on the pickleball court. Richardson recently spent several months in Sarasota, Florida, honing her skills in the game she loves

Credit: contributed by Diane Richardson

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Credit: contributed by Diane Richardson

Beyond the backyard

Participants can actually play pickleball year-round — it’s indoor/outdoor. It combines elements of ping-pong, tennis and badminton utilizing a court and low net over which single or double-combination players paddle a perforated, plastic ball back and forth.

According to usapickleball.org, the game began one summer on Bainbridge Island near Seattle when three fathers invented an activity to engage their kids. Now, it’s the nation’s fastest-growing sport, according to the latest Sports, Fitness & Leisure Activities Topline Participation Report. It’s engaging players of all ages — with some playing for money.

“This is not just a backyard game anymore,” Richardson said. “They’ve got big-time sponsors. This is big and growing.”

But a lot of people play for enjoyment.

Richardson, 77, started with beginner lessons six years ago at the Florida RV resort she still visits yearly. She’s now a level three player out of 5.5, or intermediate-plus-level with the USA Pickleball Association. At home, she plays at North Park in Alpharetta and Canton. The ball sometimes whistles by her at 55 miles per hour.

“It has taught me balance, it has taught me hand-eye coordination like you would not believe,” she said. “It goes fast when you’re playing it.”

She plays for fitness and fun, and especially, friendships.

“Some days you play good, some days you play bad, but you’ve always got the people. Because in between games, you sit, you talk,” she said. “Then, afterwards, everybody goes to lunch. It’s very, very, very social, and for people who are older, that’s what we like.”

Exercise and sun

East Roswell resident E.J. Evans, 62, has been playing pickleball for about a year and a half.

“I did play racquetball, so it was kind of easy for me to pick up, but you really have to learn different strokes and different shots and the strategy, but you kind of just start off finding people that play your level and then work your way up,” she said.

She started with lessons in Marietta, learning rules and various strokes. Now she practices close to home at Grimes Bridge Park.

Senior players active with the Atlanta Pickleball Association, an organization that, according to its website, atlpba.org, promotes the game through competition and recreation.

Credit: Michelle Milliman

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Credit: Michelle Milliman

“You will work on specific things like strokes and how to return a serve, where is the best place to try to hit it, and then how to do that, so it’s a lot of repetition. But I enjoy my lessons just as much as I enjoy going out there and playing,” she said.

Evans also goes to open plays — meetups where people play actual games.

“You don’t have to really plan it out,” she said. “You just can look at the schedules of different parks and all of them will have hours for open play, which means you can just go by yourself, and there will be other people who will be willing to play a game with you.”

Evans has also found a social outlet through the game, and she’s always pushing toward the next level.

“You’re getting your exercise and sun,” she said. “I think it’s 50/50 — the social, and then going out there and getting your exercise and being challenged, and it’s always something to improve on, so I think people like to get better at what they’re doing every day.”

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