Social Hour

Trendy pickleball has ageless appeal.

By Stephanie Nakhleh I Photo by Andrea Vasquez

Hit the court to discover pickleball’s ageless appeal.

Pickleball, which used to be an obscure court sport, is the fastest-growing sport in America according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Santa Fe is no exception to this trend. “When we formed the club, we had about 50 people,” says Cindy Lawton, president of the Santa Fe Pickleball Club, “and now we’re up to 700 members. We grew from 200 to 700 just in the last year.”

Played with a paddle and a perforated ball, pickleball is a cross between ping-pong, badminton, and tennis. Or, as Los Alamos pickleball coach Dennis Wilhoit puts it, “It’s like playing table tennis [standing] on top of the table.”

While many people are just learning about it, pickleball originated in the 1960s. Three fathers in Washington State improvised the game on an old badminton court. Its origin story points to the family dog — Pickles — as the source of the game’s name.

It’s popular among all ages, but for people in their 50s and beyond, the sport’s smaller court size and slower pace make it easier on joints, reducing the risk of injury.

“If you can stand and take a few steps without falling down, you can play pickleball,” says Lem O’Neal of Los Alamos, an ambassador for USA Pickleball, the governing body for the sport. “The lady that taught me how to play pickleball was 85 years old. I was a racquetball player and I’m like, “This is just not going to be challenging to me.” But she really amazed me — how she could play, how she could keep the ball away from me. She was really good!”

Pickleball isn’t just a physical sport; it also offers mental benefits. The game requires concentration, strategic thinking, and quick decision-making. “It’s a very mindful game,” says Santa Fe player Gaby Loy. “The more you play, the more you develop your skills and the more you’re using your brain for strategy. So it becomes more than just physical.” One of the most appealing aspects of pickleball is the social connection it fosters, says Wilhoit, who is 70. “Older people get lonely, because our friends are gone and our kids grew up and moved away. But this is such a social game because you can go to any community where they’re playing and just show up, and you will be included.”

“We have a lot of people that are single, maybe widowed, and this keeps them from being lonely at home,” agrees Lawton. “Some people tell us, ‘This has been a literal lifesaver.’ They come out, they meet people and then go out for lunch afterwards, or happy hour.” While players get together informally outside the game, the Santa Fe Pickleball Club also organizes monthly non-pickleball activities, she says.

The club offers “newbie clinics” for beginners for free on the third Saturday of the month. Advance sign-up via santafepickleballclub.com is required. Los Alamos has a looser association of players; information is available at losalamospickleball.godaddysites.com. Pickleball has proven to be an extraordinary sport, providing multiple benefits, including promoting physical health, mental stimulation, social connection, and ageless fun. “What it gives you is a community,” Loy says. “Regardless of what level you play, you’re out there — and this is big for the senior community — meeting people, playing in groups, and forming lifelong friendships.”

Stephanie Nakhleh is a freelance writer who grew up in New Mexico. Her work has appeared in many local publications.






Santa Fe New Mexican