The once-teased sport is more popular than you’d think, especially among Wounded Warriors
Tough guys playing pickleball feels a bit like an oxymoron, but tell that to the couple dozen veterans working up a sweat Saturday afternoon at the San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club.
There, muscled vets wearing white T-shirts and do-rags were pounding the courts, whipping a plastic ball with a small wooden paddle in a rapid volley. Each time a player hit the small wiffle-like ball, a sharp “crack!” brought grins to everyone’s faces.
The game — an amalgam of badminton, tennis and ping pong — was new to everyone playing Saturday. What they lacked in technique they made up for in zeal.
“I’ve never played this before, but it’s fun — and it’s harder than it looks,” said Erich Allman, a former U.S. Navy corpsman everyone calls “Doc.” “I’m super competitive, so I’m trying to win.”
These 25 or so veterans and service members were brought together to learn the infectious sport by the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit group that serves those injured during combat or military operations post 9/11. The vets are diverse in age, from quite young to over 60 years old. Some were in the Navy, others in the Marines or Army. They all share one thing in common: they’ve survived physical or mental injuries in their military careers.
Veterans like Allman and Jonny Tomcek, a former Army specialist 4, are managing post-traumatic stress disorder. Others are recovering from traumatic brain injury or physical injuries. Some are nursing their backs while they dart from one side of the miniature court to the other. Still, the exercise seems to be doing them good.
The event, called Pickleball Fest, is one of many outdoorsy activities Wounded Warriors likes to set up for the vets. It’s important to get members outside and moving, said Jennifer Angeloni, a physical health and wellness specialist for the nonprofit. It’s especially necessary to teach veterans how to stay fit after injuries or while they age, she said. Many try to keep up their old fitness routines, doing abrasive exercises like running, pull-ups and push-ups.
“To them, that’s normal, and it’s what they think they should be doing today, even though they have a busted shoulder, arthritis in their knees and a low back injury now,” Angeloni said. “It’s our job to show them you can exercise in ways that don’t cause impact to your joints. You don’t have to run; you can swim. You don’t have to do Crossfit; you can do yoga. You can still be active without hurting yourself.”
For this reason, pickleball and Wounded Warriors are a perfect match.
The milder court sport
Although once picked on by elitist athletes for its namby-pamby name and small court size, pickleball is currently skyrocketing in popularity nationwide. In 2018, it was the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Tennis clubs all over the nation are converting some of their courts into pickleball stations to keep up with demand. Since pickleball courts are so much smaller, clubs can fit four of them into one traditional tennis court.
“If you would’ve told me I’d be converting two of my tennis courts into pickleball courts a few years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Scott Slade, who manages the San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club in Bay Park. “But now, it’s really popular.”
Longtime tennis and pickleball player Julie Boeger, who watched veterans play from the sidelines Saturday, said she thinks the aging Baby Boomer population has a lot to do with pickleball’s sudden rise.
“We’re going into retirement, and some of us have knee issues because we’re in our 60s and 70s,” Boeger said. “We can no longer play tennis on a green acre. Pickleball you can grow old with, and it’s much easier on the knees and the hips.”
The game is well-matched to veterans nursing injuries, as it’s taxing enough to get them sweating without putting too much stress on the body. Judging by the boisterous laughter coming from the courts, it also seems the game is just plain fun.
“There’s a lot more finesse shots in pickleball than tennis,” Boeger said.
For Allman, events like this are as much about fitness as they are about fun. Wounded Warriors holds a variety of events, including movie nights and other casual get-togethers. But Allman likes the nutrition classes and sports best.
“I do a lot more of the physical stuff because it helps my depression and PTSD to be active,” Allman said. “These events get us healthy. Otherwise, we’re sitting at home and isolating ourselves.”
Being with his own peers is especially therapeutic, he said.
“I could be out there doing this stuff with my neighbors, I guess, but it wouldn’t be the same as connecting with other vets,” Allman said. “There’s no explaining you have to do here. We’re all the same.”
Wounded Warriors said the San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club both organized and hosted the event for them, doing nearly all of the legwork with a group of volunteers. They plan on holding Pickleball Fest annually.