Avid East Lyme pickleball players call for dedicated courts
Niantic — Accessible. Social. Addicting. These are the words frequent players use to describe pickleball, a popular paddle ball game that draws from pingpong, tennis and badminton and can be played indoors or outdoors.
The sport is trending around the nation, with 4.8 million players, an increase of 39% over the past two years, according to the latest data from The Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Pickleball activity also has grown steadily in East Lyme and surrounding areas.
Lorna Pray is East Lyme’s pickleball ambassador, a volunteer position she applied for through the USA Pickleball organization. She and Donna Richards, Waterford’s pickleball ambassador, co-teach 16 beginner pickleball players per month for four weeks at a time on Fridays in East Lyme. Pray said it is getting increasingly difficult to accommodate new players and the play conditions are less than optimal in town. Many times, as reservations quickly fill up, new players are redirected to Groton’s Parks and Recreation facilities, which usually offer more play times. Although there are tennis courts at the high school, those are not available for use during school days.
This prompted Scott Todd of Niantic to initiate a petition for East Lyme to consider building dedicated pickleball courts.
“Pickleball players have no dedicated permanent indoor or outdoor courts available in town. We have to make do with the dimly lit multipurpose room in the Community Center (and its overhead obstructions) or use the Pickleball lines on the basketball courts at Peretz Park at Bridebrook (where nets are not provided, and no fencing exists to contain the balls and break the wind),” Todd said, reading his petition during the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting Thursday at Town Hall.
To date, he has gathered 230 signatures through his petition on change.org. He called for a committee to be formed to investigate the funding and resources necessary to meet the needs of pickleball players, not just in East Lyme, but across the southeastern Connecticut shoreline.
Pray, 71, stood out Tuesday on the pickleball court at the Community Center, 41 Society Road. She wore a trademark floral scarf and bracelets on her right wrist. Tall and slender with a pearl-white pixie cut, she is agile, alert and deliberate with each placement of the ball, knowing that strategy is the great equalizer of the sport.
“Meet the ball, catch the ball, push the ball,” she said. While playing, she calls out coaching advice to her teammates and opponents alike.
Pray said she was a tomboy and, although she didn’t play sports in her childhood, she frequently plays pickleball with her adult sons. She emphasized that swinging the paddle hard is not always recommended, as the plastic indoor pickleball, which is similar to a wiffle ball, can easily be hit out of bounds. Most of the points are won near the net, so pingpong-like reflexes and wrist techniques that allow the ball to curve or slice are just as important. There are also times when simply tapping or pushing the ball are enough to allow the ball to drop just behind the net, making it more difficult for opponents to return the ball.
“I love teaching and sharing what I know about the sport,” she said. “I realize most of my students will be way better than me. My joy is helping and reassuring new players. We are all learners, and we all continue to learn.” She plays to the level of her opponent to help grow the sport, but also plays competitively at tournaments across the state.
Todd, 65, took his 28-year-old son’s advice to try pickleball during the coronavirus pandemic.
“He said, ‘Dad, you’re gonna love this game,’” Todd said. Retired after 43 years at Electric Boat, he said he was hooked after one lesson. He played rugby, tennis, volleyball and he ran marathons prior to playing pickleball regularly.
“It’s a low threshold for success with one or two lessons,” his wife, Kelly Todd, 58, said. “It’s about patience. The player that miss-hits loses points.” She said she aims right for the body when she plays, which makes it challenging for some to return the ball.
Although pickleball has a reputation for being popular among seniors, it’s only because they are the ones visibly playing during the day. She said the sport appeals to all ages and many players play pickleball after work in the evenings and some even take a break during the day to play before going back to work. People play on average about three to four times per week, she added.
East Lyme pickleball players believe that dedicated pickleball courts would be a good investment for the town because it could bring in revenue from other towns. Pickleball players at East Lyme facilities come from as far away as Guilford to play. And East Lyme players have been known to travel frequently to Groton and Old Saybrook to find available facilities.
“We have fun and we laugh a lot,” said Karen Vincent, 57, of Niantic.
Games typically are played as mixed doubles, or two teams of two players each, but also can be played one on one. Players sign up to play not knowing who their teammates are until they arrive. Because each game is brief and partners rotate each round, players have the opportunity to meet everyone who came to play.
“Flip a coin and throw me wherever you want me,” Richard Steel of East Lyme said as teams were being reassigned between games.
“You’re out moving, doing things rather than sitting at home,” Roland Jones of North Madison said. He met Pray while playing in Westbrook once and now plays regularly with friends he has made in East Lyme.
According to Todd, there was agreement at the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting that East Lyme needs dedicated pickleball courts. Sue Kumro, owner of Mermaid Liquors, volunteered to chair a committee to make specific recommendations on location, design and funding.
Todd was pleased to hear Parks and Recreation Director David Putnam's comments: “Dave said, ‘It’s not a question of if we build pickleball courts but when.’"
To learn how to play pickleball, people need to inquire with their town's parks & recreation or senior center. Comfortable fitness wear, such as shorts and T-shirts, and court shoes are highly recommended (running shoes or cross-trainers are not ideal). New players don't need a paddle for lessons if they want to try the sport.
In East Lyme, those interested in pickleball lessons through the town's Senior Center can call the office at (860) 739-5859 for details. Lessons are $40 for four weeks. Lessons are available on Fridays beginning at 9:45 a.m. Open pickleball games are held on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. for those who already know how to play, for $3 per person. Registration is required; call the office for further details. Play times vary in other towns.
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