Professor digs into pickleball, lesser known court sport

By Phillip Carwane – pcarwane@unca.edu – Contributor | April 15, 2015 |

The flowering trees through the window herald spring’s arrival on the campus of UNC Asheville as the the semester approaches its end. The desks of a New Hall classroom are starting to fill for 10 a.m. Spanish. The students are showing various levels of alertness. Some just rolled out from bed, while others wrap their hands tightly around mugs of coffee. One person is full of energy.

Professor Alice Weldon stands at the head of the class and greets each new arrival with salutations in Spanish.

The lessons start early most days. This morning starts differently. This morning a student asks if Weldon will be teaching this summer. The answer is no. A wave of disappointment washes over the class, but not Weldon. She smiles thinking of her future, which waits only a few more weeks ahead.

”What are you going to do in retirement?,” a curious student asks.

It is now that Weldon shares how her interests have taken a turn for the athletic.

“I am looking forward to playing pickleball everyday,” Weldon said. “Pickleball and my grandchildren.”

Pickleball? What the heck is pickleball?

“It’s the fastest growing sport for people 50 and older,” said Barb Svenson, 51, a librarian at UNCA’s D.H. Ramsey Library.

More than 400,000 people actively play pickleball, according to the USA Pickleball Association. Tennis and basketball courts convert to badminton-sized courts, using a net similar to tennis. Players use paddles to hit the plastic whiffle ball in a combination of tennis, badminton and pingpong.

“I didn’t even know what that was,” said Jessica Larose, a 25-year-old accounting student who attends Weldon’s 10 a.m. class. “She’s super excited about it though, so its gotta be fun.”

Weldon said her sister-in-law introduced her to the game.

“I Googled it,” Weldon said. “There’s a pickleball association right here in Asheville. You can find out where to play at what time.”

Asheville supports multiple pickleball locations around town.

“So I went and started playing and absolutely loved it,” Weldon said. “I play two or three times a week indoors, and most weeks I get one or two times outdoors.”

But what of the world travel and exotic locations where many retirees would love to travel? What of the proverbial bucket list?

“I assumed she’d go travel and do all sorts of fun stuff like that,” Larose said. “When I retire, I feel like I’ll want to go off and travel.”

Weldon, on the other hand, said she is not as intent on traveling as she once was.

“I had no idea what I was going to do,” Weldon said. “I’d been all over. I’d lived in Spain and Mexico and Bolivia. I’d visited Argentina and Chile and I loved all that but that just wasn’t calling me.”

Weldon said she and her ex-husband traveled throughout their marriage for humanitarian endeavors.

“I’ve had a not insignificant amount of guilt feeling that I don’t want to travel,” Weldon said. “I don’t want to go anywhere. I just want to stay here. I love my house. I love my yard. I love Asheville.”

Weldon credits pickleball with providing another reason for her to stay in town. While playing at Stephens-Lee Recreation Center, Weldon caught the eye of another player. Her energy and smile captivated Cary, a recent widower.

“So now I’ve got this wonderful, wonderful relationship with this fabulous man, and pickleball did it,” Weldon said.

Pickleball fosters a friendly community, according to Svenson.

“The culture of it is really kind of unique,” Svenson said. “Pickleball, kind of universally, is really open, really friendly. People are happy to play with you as a beginner. It’s all really nice and fun.”

The siren song of pickleball captures many.

“As of today, I’ve already played twice this week, and I’m going to play tomorrow,” Svenson said. “It’s bizarrely addictive.”

The YMCA in downtown Asheville allots time for pickleball three times a week.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Frank Wilson, a 77-year-old retiree from Fairview who plays at the YMCA. “It grew in Florida and California then worked its way up.”

The USA Pickleball Association reports pickleball related stories from a myriad of places like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Mumbai, India.

“It’s particularly huge in Florida, California, Arizona, Washington and Oregon,” Svenson said. “Interestingly, in Washington and Oregon, it’s young people playing. It’s a huge sport for young people there.”

Svenson plays with Weldon on a regular basis and approves of her retirement plans.

“That to me sounds great for her. She’s already done a lot of traveling,” Svenson said.  “She met someone through pickleball and has that whole great part of her life now.”

Larose said she hoped to have Weldon for one more class.

“I’m going to miss her,” Larose said. “Whenever I take second-level Spanish, I hope the professor is as fun as her.”

 

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