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The Fastest-Growing Game in America

Pickleball provides the tennis-type workout without all the stress on the knees from running

Chester ‘Chet’ Lord and his wife Mickey are pickleball state champions in the 80 to 84 age division for mixed doubles.

What are they doing? That’s what I wondered — as you might, too — about the volleying game going on at North Beach Community Center’s gymnasium. Your eyes tell your brain that something seems off about the game underway here — and across the nation.
    Ping-pong has lost its table, racquetball has knocked down its walls, badminton has become bird-less or the tennis court has shrunk to a quarter of its size. It’s quite the pickle to describe exactly what this game is.
    “We love pickleball,” players are saying. The numbers say it, too, with more than three million players (an increase of 12 percent from last year) picking up paddles, and with approximately 85 new court locations opening around the country every month. The fastest-growing game in America is also being taught in many public school systems.
    Anne Arundel, Prince Georges and Calvert counties are havens for pickleball. In Annapolis, Mayor Gavin Buckley named a city’s Ambassador of Pickleball. Sara Aiken, the proprietor of Eastport Pickleball, will play in France in the Pickleball French Open, then travel to Ireland with a group of players to visit pickleball clubs across the Emerald Isle.
    Back home, Aiken plans to seek funding from the Maryland legislature to make Annapolis the pickleball center of the mid-Atlantic.
    “This designation makes it easier to advocate the sport and for showcasing the economic importance and health advantages of the game,” she says.
    Calvert County has its own informal ambassador for the game.
    “It’s the perfect hybrid game, and not just for those getting older,” says multi-faceted Senior Olympic champion Chester ‘Chet’ Lord. “It gives us the tennis-type workout without all the running stress on the knees, along with the ping-pong volleying ­intensity.”
    At 81, Lord doesn’t mind the intensity or the challenge. The 30-year Calvert County resident’s list of accomplishments and medals is staggering: 30 gold, 23 silver and 14 bronze, won mostly in tennis and table tennis.
    He’s known as both a fierce competitor and a patient teacher.
    “I heard about Chet almost immediately when I began working with Parks and Rec in 2006,” says Paul Lundberg, recreation coordinator in the northern district of Calvert County’s Parks and Recreation. “For years, people would talk about his accomplishments and that he used to teach ping-pong at the Northeast Community Center. The staff said he donated all the tables.
    “I didn’t get to meet him until pickleball began here in 2016, and it was hard to believe that he was the same competitive man of the stories. In person, he’s unassuming and carries himself with quiet dignity, always ready to help someone improve their skills.”
    Having switched over to pickleball a few years ago, Lord and his wife, Mickey, won mixed doubles this year in the 80 to 84 age division on the state level.
    “If we continue to play, there might come a day when we just show up and win a gold if there’s no one else old enough to play us,” Lord joked.
    Maybe some day, but not right now. There were 30 players in his bracket at the National Senior Olympic Games in June in Albuquerque. He took fourth place in Men’s Singles 80 to 84 age group.
    “Chet and Mickey inspire all of us,” says Lisa Petersen, the unofficial email liaison between the county pickleball facilities and the players. “And we follow their lead when it comes to helping new players.”
    Thinking of taking up the game? Here are some of Chet Lord’s tips.
    1. Practice serving. Get into a routine. Take your time.
    2. Forehand has preference for the better shot, especially down the middle.
    3. Talk to your partner.
    4. When your partner is pulled wide, slide over to cover.
    5. Look for the weak link in your opponent’s play, and direct most of your shots there.
    6. In close games, keep the ball in play in the middle of the court.
    7. The pickleball does not compress like a tennis ball. Most balls in doubt by the line are out.
    Check out Places 2 Play at www.usapa.org.