Pickleball Craze Sweeps Essex County
Story by Michael Seguin
Photography by Janet Balmer Photography
Pickleball, Malinda Hebert explains, is the fastest growing sport in North America. The game originated from Bainbridge Island, Washington, during the summer of 1965. Joel Pritchard and his two friends, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, attempted to set up a game of badminton for their families, but were missing some equipment. They improvised, lowering the badminton net and bringing in a plastic ball and plywood paddles. And thus, pickleball was born.
The name itself—pickleball—originated from either term “pickle boat”—small vessels manned by leftover oarsmen—or the Pritchard family dog, Pickles.
Malinda first encountered pickleball right before she retired from her sales position at the Windsor Star.
“I saw a full page article for something called ‘pickleball,’” Malinda recalls. “When I read it, I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to try this!’ I used to play a lot of racquetball, and Ioved it. I thought it would be a perfect sport for me because it was low-impact, and racquetball courts are so scarce.”
After retiring at 60, Malinda marched over to the Riverside Sports Centre, picked up her first paddle, and her life changed forever.
“It was an instant love,” Malinda laughs. “I was so excited because Pickleball is great exercise, wonderful people showing you how to play, very inexpensive and a lot of fun. It’s not like golf where it could take a long time to get good at it. Or tennis where you need some kind of skill to enjoy it. It’s for everyone. That said, it can be intensely competitive if you want it to be.”
When asked what her favourite part of the sport is, Malinda mentions the social aspect.
“It’s a very social sport,” Malinda explains. It gets me off the couch and I also like the competitive play. The competitive aspect is not my main thing, although I have played in many tournaments. But, the social end means a lot to me. I tell everybody that, once you try this sport, you’re going to fall in love at first play.”
Malinda has competed at different pickleball tournaments both sides of the border.
“Competing at the U.S. National pickleball tournament was on my bucket list,” Malinda states. “My husband and I were vacationing in Arizona. I partnered up with another Canadian named Karen Hill, who lives outside of London. We decided to play in a tournament, so we entered one in Pebble Creek, Arizona which at the time was the largest Pickleball club in the world. We ended up getting the gold in the 4.0 division.”
After winning that tournament, Malinda and Karen qualified to compete at the Nationals at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Palm Springs, California.
“We knew it would be extremely competitive because we moved up to the 4.5 division,” says Malinda. “What an experience. We had a ball! We ended up winning one game. It was spectacular watching all the pros and meeting players from all over the continent. It was amazing!”
Windsor-Essex County is home to some serious pickleball talent. Players from this area are constantly bringing home medals from tournaments in Canada and the United States. Windsorite Bob Butnari finished last year as the number one ranked men’s 60+ singles player in Canada.
Malinda currently serves as the Ambassador for Pickleball Ontario and the President of Tecumseh Pickleball Association. She previously served as the Vice President of the Riverside Pickleball Club.
“I’ve been playing for seven years at Riverside and other facilities,” Malinda states. “Right now, Riverside has the largest group of players with over 250. The biggest problem right now in the pickleball world is getting facilities.”
However, Malinda’s prayers might have been answered. Next spring, the Town of Tecumseh plans on installing 10 more outdoor courts and a future six indoor at the new SportsPlex. In addition, the Town of Kingsville plans on launching new pickleball courts.
“Kingsville just got approved to build eight outdoor courts next to the arena,” Malinda explains. “They’ve even resurfaced two tennis courts to include eight pickleball courts in Cottam.”
As an enthusiast, Malinda couldn’t be happier watching her favourite sport sweep Southwestern Ontario.
“It’s so exciting!” Malinda states. “Even though I’m the President of Tecumseh Pickleball, it’s not just about Tecumseh. It’s about all of Essex County. My goal is to bring pickleball everywhere. Everybody can enjoy this sport and the more courts we have, the more people we can introduce the sport to. We actually had to be careful how many people we taught pickleball to in the outdoor courts because come wintertime there was limited space for them to play! Especially evening and weekends.”
During the pandemic, the Town of Tecumseh and Tecumseh Pickleball have endeavored to keep everyone safe on the pickleball courts.
“Right now, Tecumseh has adopted a very conservative stance on pickleball play,” Malinda explains. “They’re only allowing singles to be played on their courts during stage 2. Meaning, only two people per court. Which is smart of them, but our players are anxious to get back to doubles play hopefully in stage 3.
However, Malinda notes that some hungry enthusiasts have gotten creative.
“People are playing in their driveways,” Malinda states. The courts are still in high demand. The Town of Tecumseh has been great at ensuring that everyone stays as safe as possible.”
Under normal conditions there are numerous pickleball courts available. There are locations at the Atlas Tube Centre, WFCU Centre, the Essex Community Centre, General Amherst High School, the Leamington Kinsmen Recreational Complex, the Heritage Park Alliance Church and more!
What’s more, Malinda has even developed a website to help grow pickleball in Windsor and Essex County. Windsor Essex County Pickleball is a volunteer organization that promotes the sport and keeps everyone up to date on the latest news in the area. The website provides pertinent information on local places to play, events, clinics, tournaments and other useful links.
More information can be accessed at windsoressexpickleball.ca.
“Our team from Tecumseh Pickleball is amazing,” Malinda explains. “We’ve been working so hard. We’re doing a lot behind the scenes right now in preparation for the new courts next year. We’re organizing teams to help with lessons, boot camps, referee clinics, junior programs and much more.”
“When I used to go on vacation, I would ask what kind of golf course they had?” Malinda states. “Now, whenever my husband plans a vacation, he knows to look for pickleball courts!”