Players love getting in a Pickle(ball)

Hack Jensen, right, returns the ball as her husband and partner Bruce backs her up during their championship game against Jerry Santoro and Christy Maron for the title of the 3.5 mixed doubles division Sunday at the Western Slope Regional Pickleball tournament at Lincoln Park. Santoro and Maron took the gold, with the Jensens winning the silver.

Jerry Santoro, right, returns the ball Sunday as his partner Christy Maron backs him up during their championship game against Bruce and Hack Jensen of Fruita for the title of the 3.5 mixed doubles division at the Western Slope Regional Pickleball tournament held at Lincoln Park. Santoro and Maron took the gold, with the Jensens winning the silver.

In rapid-fire action the funky little ball was hit back and forth, three, four, five times, then a wicked forehand with the funky little paddle ended the rally.

Pickleball at its finest.

The Lincoln Park courts were packed Sunday with players from 21 to 84 years old for the fourth annual Western Slope Open.

A total of 122 players took part in the fast-growing sport.

Debbie Forrester, 64, came up from Ridgway to play in the tournament.

“Everyone can play it but it’s still kind of difficult to be good at it,” she said. “It takes super quick reflexes.”

For the former professional handball player, the physical low-impact of pickleball is part of the appeal.

She flashes a huge smile and reveals that she has “two new knees and a new hip” but pickleball isn’t that tough on her.

Still very competitive, Forrester said the social part of the game makes it enjoyable but there’s still plenty of competitive outlets too.

She says the game is like playing on a big ping pong table.

Former professional ping pong player Tao Thongvanh agrees, to a certain degree.

“I think it’s a little more like tennis,” he said.

The native of Laos, who was raised in France, grew up playing both ping pong and tennis, so he has all the skills to be good at pickleball.

“I picked it up real fast,” he said, smiling. “In doubles, you have to be balanced with your partner. If your partner isn’t as good, the other team will pick on them.”

At 45, Thongvanh, who lives in Fruita, and his brother compete on the national level including competing in the U.S. Pickleball Open.

He loves the fact that the game continues to grow in popularity.

“It’s growing everywhere. Everywhere I go, they are building more courts,” he said. “It’s a very fun game.”

Lorie Gregor, recreation coordinator for the Grand Junction Parks and Recreation, said the Western Slope Open had competitors from the Front Range, all over the Western Slope and from Wyoming.

She said last year’s tournament drew 105 competitors.

Grand Junction currently has eight outdoor courts, and three indoor courts in the Lincoln Park Barn.

“People played seven days a week through the winter (in the barn),” she said.

Grand Junction hosts three pickleball tournaments a year: Western Slope Open, the Taco Bell Open in July and the Senior Games in August.

Gregor said there’s a number of reasons for the game’s popularity.

“It’s a super social game. Tons of friendships are born out it,” she said. “The competition level is also rising all the time.”

Thongvanh said he’s excited to see the skill of the players rising.

“I try and raise the level of the game and I offer free coaching and training,” he said.

For Grand Junction, the pickleball courts are rarely empty and Thongvanh said the need for more courts has already arrived.

Gregor said a number of people have talked to her about how to get courts built in their communities.

“People have called and asked how did we do it,” she said.

“I tell them that it took a grass roots community effort” combined with the help from the parks and recreation department.

Forrester said one of the appeals of the game that she sees is how welcoming pickleball players are and how willing they are to play with and help new players.

“It’s such a fun game and it’s great to see more new players start playing all the time,” she said.


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