Pickleball Takes the Bay


IT CAN BE hot out at Thigpen Sports Courts in Hamilton on a summer afternoon, very hot, but that doesn’t deter USA Pickleball Association ambassador George Silvas and his disciples. Heat, cold, wind — these athletes, from Sausalito to Marshall and everywhere in between, show up each week to play the game with a funny name, a game that also happens to be one of the fastest-growing sports in America. The pickleball craze that has swept the nation over the past five years has, sure enough, arrived here in Marin. Silvas, a former high school teacher and coach who now lives in Novato, assumed he would fill his retirement with golf. A lifelong athlete and competitor, he was a serious 5-handicap golfer, so when his wife, Maria, suggested they should try pickleball because it is an activity they could enjoy together, he was skeptical. They dug through his old PE equipment to find racquets, headed out to the tennis courts at San Marin High School, and before he even had time to think about what he was getting into, Silvas was hooked. They both were.

Within the year he and Maria, who was not a lifelong competitive athlete but happened to be a pickleball natural, were competing in a tournament in Reno, where they won a mixed doubles division. Before long, Silvas found himself teaching Intro to Pickleball at venues across Marin County. “I’m retired, but this has become a full-time job. I don’t have enough time each day to teach classes for everyone who wants to learn to play right now,” he says.

Although wildly popular of late, this sport, which looks like a blend of tennis and Ping-Pong, has been around for over 50 years; it was created by a group of bored friends on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1965. When they couldn’t find the shuttlecock for their badminton set, they improvised with homemade wooden paddles and a whiffle ball on a badminton court. Now governed by the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) and the International Federation of Pickleball (IFP), the game is played both indoors or outdoors, still on badminton-size courts.

A game at Thigpen Sports Court in Hamilton

Who plays pickleball?

“Anyone can play!” Silvas says. The game tends to draw former tennis players whose knees and other joints can’t tolerate the tennis court anymore. With pickleball the size of the court and slower speed of the ball mean less ground to cover, so the game is perfect for retirees looking to maintain the joy of social play and thrill of competition in their lives. But the demographic is definitely not limited to the older age set or to former athletes. Silvas says his local classes and tournaments are peppered with players of all ages and skill sets. The Pickleball Channel, a web-based video channel for enthusiasts, features U.S. Pickleball Open Championship matches between young men’s and women’s singles superstars, all in prime physical shape. “I just taught a summer clinic at Rolling Hills Club that was for 9- to 15-yearolds,” Silvas says. “They went crazy for it and want more.” He adds that two of the better players in the region are kids, a pair of brothers, 8 and 10 years old.

George Silvas Pickleball
George Silvas instructs players who whiffle-like balls and special wood or graphite paddles.

What does it take to play pickleball?

No experience is necessary, Silvas insists. Many who come out have never played a racquet sport or been a competitive athlete. His wife is a perfect example: not a competitive athlete, took to pickleball quickly. Sharon Skolnick, a lifelong tennis player who now practices and competes regularly at the Thigpen Sports Courts, convinced her engineer husband, Sandy, to come out. “He never liked sports much,” she says. “But he loves this.”

Why is pickleball so popular?

It is unanimous among the pickleball players in Silvas’ classes, from the San Rafael PE teacher to the West Marin retired realtor: you play because it is fun. And for people like Skolnick, who survived cancer and lymphedema, the game has offered much more than fun. “I was a tomboy, and sports had been my life from the time I was a young girl,” says Skolnick, who had to give up competitive tennis due to her health issues. Finding pickleball has been critical to both her physical and mental health, she says. “Now I play three or four days a week. To be honest, I believe it has helped me to survive.” Everyone agrees the game offers a good balance of social and competitive activity, with a friendly, open atmosphere that allows players to come in at various levels and play with varying degrees of intensity. According to Maria Silvas, who has now traveled the country and abroad participating in the sport with her husband, “Pickleball groups tend to be full of warm and caring people. In fact, I have never met a snooty group.”

All ages and skill levels enjoy the game and players are rated from 2.0 to 5.0 for tournaments, like in tennis.

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s September 2017 print edition under the headline: “In a Pickle.” 

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