At a pickleball centre in Edmonton, nearly 200 players are getting ready to compete. They have come to this local tournament to show off their ability, and take their shot at top prize.
“There’s lots of people, high energy. I’m just happy to be part of it,” says Brad Chapman, who is playing men’s doubles.
The 32-year-old used to play badminton but now he’s training for victory in pickleball. He won gold at the 2022 Canada National Championships for his age and skill level. Now, he wants to add another trophy to his collection.
“That adrenaline rush you get from fighting for the win … just super exciting,” Chapman says.
But first, he will have to defeat Haddow Thul, a close friend who is also his training partner.
“Knowing how he plays now … I think is a very big advantage for me,” Thul says, who was a silver medalist at the Canadian Nationals.
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Both men want to go pro, something that is possible with pickleball. The growing popularity of the sport has given birth to two professional U.S. tours and a new Canadian professional league.
The two Calgarians practice together often. It is tough to find space to train and play, so they use a make-shift court in an industrial warehouse owned by Thul’s employer.
“It’s a passion of mine. I love it,” says Thul. “You know, traveling across North America, traveling at tournaments … driving through blizzards to go play tournaments in Edmonton.”
Pickleball’s explosive growth
“I do think it is the fastest growing sport in Canada and probably North America,” says Carla Anderson, the executive director of Pickleball Canada.
Anderson has been in high-performance sports for more than 30 years. She said it’s “fascinating to watch” the explosion in play.
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“In January of 2022, it was at over a million people in Canada playing,” Anderson says.
That’s up from about 350, 000 people in 2021. What’s also changing is who is playing: once a sport for seniors, 18 to 34 years-olds make up the “fastest growing population in Canada” for pickleball, Anderson tells Global News’ The New Reality.
It’s a new lease on life for a sport that’s nearly six decades old. Invented in 1965 by a U.S. congressman and his friends on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, there is a bit of mystery shrouding the origin of the name. “One of the legends is that it was named after one of their dogs, Pickle,” says Anderson.
The other theory, she says, is that the term was born out of the term “the pickle boat” from rowing, which is used to describe a crew of rowers put together at random to compete. Since pickleball is a mishmash of badminton, tennis and ping pong, the reference only seems fitting.
The growing pains of pickleball
The pickleball pickle
But this game with a quirky name is not without controversy.
There aren’t enough courts to meet demand. So, pickleballers have had to be creative and turn empty parking lots or courts into areas to play. This has sparked friction with more traditional sports.
“Here in Victoria, tensions are definitely around some players who would really like to have all of the tennis courts marked for pickleball,” says Connie McCann, president of the Victoria Regional Pickleball Association.
“But we need to focus on getting our own space,” she added.
The battle for space has given way to another growing pain: noise. Over the years, the sound the ball makes when hit has triggered clashes between players and residents living nearby outdoor spaces.
Complaints have resulted in court cases, fines and even bans.
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Last spring, the City of Victoria barred the sport from an outdoor tennis area because of noise concerns.
But McCann and her club weren’t having it. They decided to hold a pickleball protest at Victoria City Hall to fight the decision.
“We brought it to the attention of the mayor and council,” she told The New Reality, adding, “I think they wanted us to go away. And the one thing that over 55-year-old people do not do is go away.”
McCann says the rally worked. While they are still prohibited from playing at that one outdoor park, the city has given them a few dedicated courts.
She understands the frustration and agrees “the sound of pickleball is too much” when you have courts that are being used day in and day out. That’s why her association helped raise funds to put up a sound barrier.
Industry experts maintain that building more courts, indoors and outdoors, would be a solution for a lot of the issues.
“Make sure they’re not around very populated residents’ areas,” Anderson says.
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Back in Edmonton, Chapman and Thul, along with their partners, have made it to the finals.
As is often the case with these two men, they will have to face off to win the tournament.
“It’s really funny that we’re always playing against each other in finals, and I think it’s really special,” says Thul.
To claim glory, they will have to play a best-of-five series.
Thul and his teammate secure the opening game. The matches are fairly close, and the wins flip back and forth between Thul and Chapman the entire way.
“So, it went down to the very last game. It was very tight the whole way through,” Chapman says.
In the end, Thul and his partner were able to pull out a win and take the entire match.
“It felt amazing,” says Thul, “just a ton of gratitude for even being able to be a part of that game.”
While Chapman was disappointed in the loss, he will be making his professional tour debut this year.
And since pickle mania shows no signs of slowing down, players are hoping communities, big and small, create dedicated spaces for this sport to call home.
“We have to catch up in terms of infrastructure,” Chapman said. “As soon as we get more dedicated pickleball space, it’s just going to help this sport continue to grow very rapidly.“
Pickleball 101: A lesson in the popular sport in this edition of Out & About