Get yourself into a pickle

Melinda Mawdsley, second from right, hits the ball back over the net as she plays pickleball with, from left to right, George Gerson, Rachel Sauer and Ken Hobbs during a lesson at Pineridge Park courts.

George Gerson, left, of Grand Junction teaches Rachel Sauer the finer points of pickleball as she and Melinda Mawdsley take a lesson from him at Pineridge Park in the Ridges.

Rachel Sauer serves the ball as she learns to play pickleball at Pineridge park in the Ridges.

Melinda Mawdsley hits the ball back over the net during a pickleball lesson with Rachel Sauer at Pineridge Park.


Editor’s note: Features writer Rachel Sauer is on fellowship in India for 10 months teaching journalism. She is scheduled to return to The Daily Sentinel in spring 2016. In the meantime, current Westlife columnist and former Daily Sentinel reporter Erin McIntyre is filling in.

My philosophy on my height, which is significant, is to take advantage of it. If something is very high, why not reach for it? Because I can, you know!

So, it got to the point that poor George Gerson, my teammate, just said no.

The pickleball would come flying my way, quite high and clearly out of bounds, but I couldn’t stop myself from sticking my paddle in the air anyway.

“No,” George would say, and I’d guiltily snatch my arm back down, trying to pretend that I hadn’t, in fact, been reaching for the ball. Tra la la, just having a little stretch, George!

Co-worker Melinda Mawdsley, on the opposing team with Ken Hobbs, didn’t seem to be having this problem. But then, she’s not as tall as me. We both, however, were pretty much getting our butts handed to us on the pickleball court.

It was the first time either of us had played, and we both agreed it was a Uniquely Western Colorado must. In just a few years, the pickleball scene in this area has gone from a handful of players on just a few courts to 11 courts in Grand Junction alone. Regional tournaments held several times a year draw dozens of teams. Pickleball is a-happening.

But what is it? Kind of a cross between tennis and ping-pong, played on a court slightly smaller than a tennis court and over a net slightly lower. The pickleball paddles are ping pong paddle-shaped but dinner plate-sized and the pickleball is hard and aerated, like a whiffleball.

You play to 11 and must win by two points, and generally it’s played as a doubles sport. There are a fair amount of other rules, too, which Melinda and I managed to bungle in a slapstick fashion, but George and Ken were very patient.

We met them at Pineridge Park early on a June morning, and right away I knew this was the sport for me. It’s custom, George explained, for players to just show up at the court. Pre-arranged foursomes are frowned upon because you’re just supposed to play with whoever is there. I love that. So wonderfully democratic, and such a great way to meet new people!

Our foursome, though, was allowed because Melinda and I were learning. We started with serves, which are underhand in pickleball. As in tennis, you serve to the quadrant opposite yours, but you’re supposed to hit the ball at a level no higher than your waist when serving.

This was a problem.

On my first serve attempt, I missed the ball entirely. My aim never has been great, I’ll admit, but it seems like such a simple thing to just kind of drop the ball with my left hand and swing through with my right. But no, the ball dribbled away like sad spaghetti while I swung like Casey at the bat.

Melinda shouted encouragement from across the court, and I managed to connect on my next attempt. Too bad it shot directly into the net. On Melinda’s first serve, she not only got it over the net but into the correct part of the court.

Show off.

Then we worked on some volleys. Ken and George had a grand old time getting the ball over the net to each other, while Melinda and I darted around like we were fending off killer bees. Finally, though, we started connecting and let me tell you about satisfaction: standing near the net and smacking the ball straight down onto the other side. Ha HA!

I guess I need to work on sportsmanship, too.

Once we started remembering where we were supposed to be on the court at each point in the game, we got quite the match going. Let it be said that pickleball is a workout. Melinda and I got more confident in our returns and even attempted a few backhands, which, OK, didn’t go so well. But it was fun!

After two matches with George and Ken, we played with Nancy MacIntosh and Diana Alpert, who were wonderfully supportive and helpful and didn’t judge us when we flailed around. And we enjoyed the immense satisfaction of several significant volleys.

We left on a pickleball high, before the morning got too hot, and George promised that it’s easy to get addicted to pickleball. I definitely can see how it would happen — the fun and the exercise and the impromptu community of it.

Plus, so much easier once I got it out of my head that I should reach for the out-of-bounds balls.

(Melinda here: Rachel’s in India so she can’t stop me from writing this, but I was 4-0 against her, mostly because she kept trying to hit everything that was going out of bounds.)


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