The pickleball courts in Virgil may look off-limits to the public, but they definitely are not.
The courts have recently been surrounded by black windscreens on three sides, and locks put on the two entries, at the request of the NOTL Pickleball Club.
However the gate code is available to anyone wanting to play, says club president John Hindle, and the courts are always available to the public.
“I’m afraid the screens and the locks make it look like an exclusive club. Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Hindle.
“We don’t want the gates to inhibit people from using the courts.”
The code is available on the club website, at www.notlpickle
ball.ca, and for those who arrive without it, the instructions are on a notice posted on the gate.
He says in recent weeks he’s noticed a growing number of young people and families playing pickleball. “We love to see the courts being used. Parents are out there playing with their kids, especially in the early evening, and they’re having a whale of a time. We really want to encourage people of all ages to give it a try.”
Club play has been suspended, indoors and on the Virgil courts, due to COVID-19. Even when club play resumes, with games for members to be scheduled in the mornings, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., there will always be at least one court for public use, says Hindle.
In the meantime, members of the club and public are welcome to use the courts, but are asked to follow safety guidelines, which are posted at the entrance.
No club play also means no lessons from instructors, at least not arranged through the club, but Hindle can’t help himself from coaching newcomers to the sport when he sees them.
One afternoon last week, he was offering tips to Rachel Mayer, 17, and Hailei Ferron, 22. It was Ferron’s first time playing pickleball, although Mayer had been on the court a few times this season.
“It’s easy to learn, kind of like ping pong, only better,” she says.
“I didn’t know it was a ‘thing,’ until I got dragged out here by friends. It’s definitely a lot of fun.”
Mayer’s a convert now, and convincing Ferron was not an effort —she too was enjoying herself, and says she’ll be encouraging her sister and friends to give it a try.
Hindle, with a few simple suggestions, had them rallying the ball back and forth in no time, while their friends waited their turn in the shade, with a cooler and music playing quietly.
He laughs that while pickleball is recognized as the fastest-growing sport in North America, he still gets funny looks from people when he mentions the name.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the club began using the courts at the community centre, they asked the Town in 2018 to convert the tennis courts at the Virgil sports park to pickleball courts.
They were rebuilt and opened in the spring of 2019, and club membership grew from 60 to 270 last year, says Hindle.
Last September, the club agreed to spend $5,000 on the windscreens to help with Niagara winds that affect the light ball during play.
The club also asked the Town for the gate locks, controlled by a code that would be made available to members and public, to protect and manage the courts, which were being damaged by bicycles and skate boards.
There is also money the club board has put aside to build a shade shelter, for between play.
Hindle says the rules of the club during the pandemic, and guidelines for the public, are to kick the ball instead of picking it up, and cleaning off the paddle and ball before and after use.
In doubles play, club rules say, partner only with your household or social circle members; maintain two-metre distancing from anyone outside your social circle or household; avoid touching the nets, posts, fencing or windscreens, and be cautious when entering or exiting the courts to not crowd at the gates.
The courts are technically open from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m., he says, but asks those playing to be respectful of noise that might bother those whose homes border the park, just steps away from the courts.
The sport was launched in Washington State in 1965, exploded in Florida, and is now huge in Canada, thought to be introduced by snowbirds who picked it up in the U.S.
The U.S. Pickleball Association says the sport has seen a 650 per cent increase in participation over the last six years, and Pickleball Canada reports an increase in both registered and recreational players, with an estimated 75,000 players across the country in 2019.
And for those who are curious about the name, there are two versions of where it originated.
The game was invented by friends in the Seattle, Washington area as a family sport. One version says it was named after Pickles, a cocker spaniel belonging to one of the families, who would run after the ball.
The other story is that the wife of one of the game’s originators named it after the pickle boat in rowing, which was said to have a crew of ragtag rowers passed over by other boats.
Either way, Hindle says, “I wished they’d picked a different name. But it’s a great sport.”