Pickleball championships showcase a sport on the grow

Abbotsford hosted the inaugural Canadian pickleball championships on the weekend.

Brian Brunink lunges to return a ball during Canadian pickleball championship action on Saturday at ARC.

Brian Brunink lunges to return a ball during Canadian pickleball championship action on Saturday at ARC.

Abbotsford hosted the inaugural Canadian pickleball championships on the weekend, a piece of news which would prompt most sports fans to ask – what on earth is pickleball?

Pickleball is, in fact, a fast-growing game – there are over 100,000 players registered in the United States and roughly 10,000 players in Canada, including about 200 from Abbotsford.

It’s a hybrid of tennis and badminton, played with a hard paddle and a wiffle-type ball on a badminton-sized court, with the net lowered to 36 inches.

As for the origins of the colourful moniker, there’s a bit of controversy.

The popular account holds that when the sport’s inventors, U.S. Congressman Joel Pritchard and William Bell, first devised the game in 1965 in Washington state, Pritchard’s dog Pickles frequently chased down errant balls and hid with them in the bushes. Hence, Pickles’ ball game came to be called pickleball.

Pritchard’s wife Joan has offered a differing version of events in recent interviews. The sport, which grew out of the haphazard equipment the family had on hand, reminded her of the “pickle boat” in rowing, where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers from other boats. She noted the Pritchard family dog wasn’t acquired until 1967 and was named after the game, not the other way around.

“It’s kind of a dumb name,” acknowledged Dave Shepherd, an Abbotsford resident who is on the board of Pickleball Canada. “But it’s been around long enough, I don’t think they’ll ever change it.”

And pickleball enthusiasts wouldn’t have it any other way.

The weekend tournament drew 168 athletes from across Canada and the United States to a pair of local host sites, Abbotsford Recreation Centre and Yale Secondary.

Among the participants were four American national champions – Jennifer Lucore,  Darcy Jacobsen, Billy Jacobsen and Chris Miller – and they dominated the open divisions. Lucore beat Darcy Jacobsen in the women’s singles final, then teamed up with her to win the doubles title. In similar fashion, Billy Jacobsen knocked off Miller to claim the men’s singles title, then joined him to earn doubles gold.

According to Shepherd, the presence of the top Americans moved the tourney to “a whole new level.”

“They’re the top pickleball players in the world, and to have them come up here and enter our first national event was just huge for us,” he enthused. “Everyone was very fortunate to get to watch them play. It was kind of like going to watch (Roger) Federer and (Rafael) Nadal and those guys.

“It was just a fantastic event, super-successful. It exceeded our expectations.”

Nine Abbotsford athletes won bronze medals. Gene Latray and Ken Franz teamed up to climb the podium in the under-55 men’s doubles; Debbie Holley and Claire Pool medaled in the over-55 women’s doubles; Matt Khan and Henry Meerkerk were third in the 60-plus men’s doubles; Mandy Witt and Gerry Logan medaled in the 65-plus women’s doubles; and Jerry Rudolph joined forces with Kelowna’s Ed Burke to finish third in the 70-plus men’s doubles.

Information on the local scene can be found at abbypickleball.blogspot.ca.

“Anyone who plays it, absolutely loves it,” Shepherd said. “It’s an easy sport to learn how to play, and it can be played by all ages.”

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