Editor’s Note: This article was born in late winter when a group of stalwarts shoveled the courts and played in freezing weather. As readers can imagine, with early spring’s more pleasant weather, Bedford’s pickleball community has responded with enthusiasm.
It’s cold and dark around dinnertime outside Bedford High School in January. The audio is familiar – students speed-walking to cars, gusts of wind, an idling school bus, an approaching aircraft.
But wait — there’s something new: the unmistakable sounds of pickleball games.
And indeed, the illuminated tennis courts often were replete with pickleball players, evidence that what some are calling the fastest-growing sport in the country has engendered a lot of passion in Bedford.
Pickleball is a racquet sport that is sort of a combination of tennis and ping-pong. The court is about half the size of a tennis court and players use a wooden paddle with a ball with holes, like a wiffleball.
Players rhapsodize about the strengths of the sport. “It’s not just a fad’ it’s something that’s going to be enduring because of its great characteristics,” asserted Mark Pearson. “Anybody with some hand-eye coordination can play. It can be played at any level. Like any sport, if you’re playing people about your skill level, it’s fun.”
Pearson, 69, and several dozen other pickleball enthusiasts, virtually all of them older than 65, have been making the case for the town to build a complex of courts using community preservation funds. Last year the town approved money for lighting the tennis courts near John Glenn Middle School, as requested by pickleball players. The Recreation Department purchased portable nets on wheels for that venue.
At a meeting of the Community Preservation Committee, members indicated that if a site can be approved, design and construction money could be fast-tracked onto the November special town meeting warrant.
The charge of identifying potential sites is on the agenda of the interdepartmental Fields Partnership. This interdepartmental staff unit has “reviewed some potential sites and eliminated some,” said Recreation Director Amy Hamilton.
“I am updating the list and we are all taking a little time to think about each site and then we will regroup soon to make recommendations as to which options to keep on the list. We will recommend some of them to the Select Board.”
Besides Hamilton, attending the Fields Partnership meeting were Department of Public Works Director David Manugian and the DPW Grounds Division head, Dennis Freeman; Keith Mangan, director of athletics for the Bedford schools; Nikki Taylor, recreation program director; and Amy Fidalgo, assistant town manager for operations.
Evan Deardorff and his wife Arlene brought pickleball to Bedford – at least officially – from Florida about six years ago. When they couldn’t find any games nearby, Evan approached Raeann Gembis, adult program coordinator at the Recreation Department, to organize what Hamilton calls “coordinated casual play and competitive play sessions.” Deardorff labeled it the “adult pickup program.”
“It’s still going strong,” he continued, and Hamilton confirmed that. “These sessions are held indoors and outdoors and they have grown in number over the past several years. Raeann has also hired someone to teach introductory pickleball as a recreation program.”
Pearson said he worked with the department to play in the gymnasium at Job Lane School, which has badminton court lines on the floor. Indoor pickleball has continued at Lane and Bedford High Schools for six years, he said.
“Within a year we had upwards of 35 people playing regularly – people were lining up at Lane waiting for the next court. And it’s been growing ever since,” said Ed Gray. He coordinates one of three current groups of players under the Recreation Department’s auspices.
Gray, 70, played “tennis and racquetball in ancient days so I enjoy the competitiveness.” He said he was part of an early group experiencing pickleball at Huckins Farm. Romeo, who still plays tennis doubles, said pickleball “requires quick reflexes, and quick reflexes are very important, particularly as we age, whether when driving a car or catching something that falls off a shelf.”
From September to December, Gray said, “we had 100 different people in the open-play group,” of which about 40 play regularly. “Another 10 or 15, mostly women, play in the morning group.” Hamilton noted, “The Recreation Department maintains an interest list in order to keep players apprised of pickleball opportunities here in town.”
“Initially the perception was it’s played by older people,” said Romeo, who is 76. “Now you see younger people and even schools. It’s becoming universally popular, which is why I hope the town can find a place for permanent courts. I’ve played with and against people in their 20s. It’s surprising that those of us who are older can hold our own because perhaps we have a bit more experience and know the strategy.”
Lucy McGovern, 83, concurred “When it started everybody thought it was tennis for old people. Now people of all ages are playing.” Alice Sun, 71, remarked, “I played one session and I thought it was fun.” Pearson, 69, said, “It’s great exercise. You can play indoors or outdoors. All of these things are positives.”
“It’s very social; 98 percent of the time we play doubles,” Pearson continued. “The net is closer so you can have a quick chat. We just know there are certain times of day when people show up, so multiple courts are in action. The games take 15 minutes or so.”
“Pickleball seems to have kind of a nice social ethic about it,” observed Gray. “People are there to have fun but enjoy being with the other folks as well,” including some who have never met.
Tennis and golf can be played in a group, but it’s limited, said Deardorff, who is 80. “Pickleball is a pickup sport. You come at any time and you can leave at any time. The games are short, so typically there’s a queue to play.” And “while you are waiting in the queue, you have a chance to talk to people.”
“It’s pretty remarkable. When you play tennis, you might have a regular group of a few people,” commented Gray. “When you’re playing pickleball, you tend to have 16, 20, 24 people and you just expand the group that much.”
“Everybody I have met has been very sociable and willing to help those who are new to the sport,” Romeo observed. “I say to new players: ‘We were all beginners once.’ I’ve been happy to help beginners learn the game.”
Some players noted that pickleball provided an escape from the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic. “In September 2020, somebody asked me to play pickleball,” Sun related. “There’s nothing else to do, so I said, ‘Let me try.’ Under the circumstances of the pandemic, it’s an outdoor game where you can exercise.” Sun says she plays ping-pong and volleyball and swims, but the limitations of Covid-19 interrupted her routine,
“My wife wrote an article for the Bedford Historical Society about what we did during the pandemic. This kept us alive,” said Gray. “It gave us a way to socialize even though we were playing with masks in the idle of the summer.”
“I play with a bunch of ladies. It was very social, especially during Covid,” said McGovern. “We played outside and we got to see other people. We enjoyed it – and I think we’re nuts, because sometimes it was 20 degrees and we still played!”
Even snow is not necessarily a deterrent. “Eight people shoveled a court out so a group could play,” McGovern related. “Another time they brought snow blowers. We just love to play.” Gray also has helped with snow removal. The enthusiasm, he said, is “really satisfying.”
The players are excited about the prospect of permanent courts; sharing with tennis players just compromises both sports, they say. Sun said she has trouble finding boundary lines applied to the tennis courts. She said she has competed on pickleball-only courts as far away as North Andover, Reading, and Westford.
Pearson and others compiled a list of prospective sites that they passed along to Hamilton for consideration. They favor the central campus, and included space near Field E along Mudge Way.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763