Stratton Mountain Resort boasts Vermont’s largest outdoor facility for playing this incredibly popular sport.
STORY BY MEGAN DEMAREST
PHOTOGRAPHY CRAIG LIGHT &
COURTESY STRATTON MOUNTAIN RESORT
A few years ago, I heard of this “new” sport pickleball that seemed to be popping up all over the country and I thought, “What on earth is that?” Was it a brand-new sport or perhaps just a passing fad? I chuckled at the name and quickly forgot about it…until I started hearing announcements about more and more pickleball courts opening. There was no denying it- everyone was talking about pickleball, playing pickleball, and investing money into facilities. It was time for me to take it seriously, despite the absence of sports in my otherwise active life. My favorite way to start with something new is to do research, so I snagged the book Pickleball for All: Everything but the Kitchen Sink by Rachel Simon. Imagine my surprise when I learned that pickleball was not a brand-new fad, but a super popular sport that has been around since 1965, 10 years before I was born! It has elements of tennis, ping pong, racquetball, paddleball, and badminton, all of which inspired its creators (John Pritchard and Bill Bell of Bainbridge, Washington) to birth a unique sport requiring its own name. It can be played on its own court, or on a tennis court, but with different boundary lines, a paddle, and a plastic ball with holes like a wiffle ball. With Simon’s book as a strong foundation for my studies, the next step was to observe people playing and hop on a court, paddle in hand and ready to be humiliated by my considerable lack of athletic prowess.
The Place to Play
In August of 2023, Stratton Mountain Resort unveiled eight dedicated outdoor pickleball courts next to their Fitness and Training Center. They held their first pickleball tournament last Fall on these fresh new courts to much success. With the installation of the dedicated outdoor courts, in addition to the already-existing shared tennis/pickleball outdoor courts, Stratton is now the largest outdoor pickleball facility in the state of Vermont. They also offer shared tennis/pickleball indoor courts, creating access to play in any season. This was the place to go to watch, learn, and play.
My colleague, Vice President of Marketing and Advertising for Old Mill Road Media, Kim Jones, learned that the agents at the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Stratton Home (BHHSH) real estate office in Bondville, VT had recently started to play pickleball together at Stratton as a team building exercise. She asked if we could peek in on their scheduled play time and they graciously agreed. On a cold day in November, we arrived at the Fitness and Training Center to warm up inside and watch four members of the BHHSH real estate team rock the court. Luckily, they happen to have a ringer in their midst. Realtor Sandy Laserte has been playing pickleball for 10 years, and she also taught it during her career as a physical education teacher. The rest of Sandy’s officemates had never played before embarking on this team building activity. For Elyn Bischof, owner/broker/realtor of BHHSH, it was quite literally her first time, and I was fortunate to witness it. I suddenly didn’t feel like a pickleball outsider any longer. These women were starting their own pickleball journey together and were kind enough to share the experience. As their first game began, it was immediately clear that the spirit of sharing exemplified by these women is not only inherent in their office, but in the sport itself. Pickleball is about camaraderie as much as it is about exercise, competition, and fun.
The BHHSH team played doubles with their four team members: Sandy, Elyn, and REALTORS® Lauren Behm and Christina Dryden. Generally, each game is played until one team (or individual, if playing singles) reaches 11 points. This makes for a fast-paced game, and as soon as the winners reach their goal, they switch up partners and play another game, an element of the sport that makes it extremely social and gives opportunities to play with and against people at varying levels. For BHHSH, it also contributes to their team building efforts as they can join forces with each of their colleagues at one point or another. “The agents who work with me value a calm, safe, enjoyable, flexible workplace, and we have consistently been improving how we work together,” reveals Elyn. “Being able to play pickleball together cultivates friendship and mutual respect.”
What struck me most heartily as I watched them play was the copious amount of laughter emanating from the court, ricocheting off the high ceilings, and inspiring my own guffaws. The fun was palpable, and it wasn’t about competition. When someone scored a point, they rejoiced and offered words of support. When someone missed a ball, they belly-laughed together, and said, “Nice try!” This was the kind of sport a gal like me could really enjoy: friendly, encouraging, and hilarious.
A “Dink” in the “Kitchen”
I learned so much that day. Sandy was generous with information as she turned on “gym teacher mode” and explained moves and techniques in real time. I was most interested in the move called a “dink,” which is a shot that arcs over the net and lands in the opponents’ “kitchen.” The kitchen is a seven-foot non-volley zone marked off in front of the net on both sides. Don’t step one toe in the kitchen when you hit the ball, or you’ll be at fault and won’t be able to score! Players practice their dinks often during warm-up, and Sandy pointed out that an effective dink is the mark of a more experienced player.
The terminology was comical and quaint, but I knew my feelings might change and be put to the test at the next level of my own journey. Will I be able to hit a dink in the kitchen and thwart my opponent’s volley, or will I forget everything and hang my head in shame? Despite my self-doubt, I knew what had to be done: get on a court and play.
Enter the Pro
Rob Menzies has been the Director of Rackets at the Cliff Drysdale Tennis School at Stratton Mountain Resort since 2013. This New Zealand native is a nationally ranked junior tennis and table tennis player (top 10 in both) who moved to the states in 2012 at age 21. He has held numerous coaching qualifications in both New Zealand and the U.S and has been playing pickleball for 5 years. “We have had pickleball here since 2019, but the increase since then has been huge,” says Rob. “After incorporating pickleball into the program at Stratton, it is fair to say I have worked with over 350 people on the pickleball court, both here and at travel events for the company.”
I was excited to learn from a pro, and Kim was just as enthusiastic. Suited in our best athletic gear, we met up with Rob at Stratton. Rob handed us some paddles, and after a brief introduction to the rules and techniques, it was time to practice our serves. The satisfaction of landing my first serve within the boundary lines quickly turned to fear when Kim wailed the ball right back at me, causing me to flinch sideways and lose the volley.
Uh oh. Kim was FIERCE. She grinned back at me over the top of the net, and I suddenly wondered if she had been taking private lessons without my knowledge. There was no denying the competitive spirit that started to arise within me. I looked back at my coworker and friend with wide eyes and declared internally: “GAME ON!”
In short, Kim and I had a blast learning to play pickleball from Rob, who is clear and patient, encouraging and honest. He asked us questions during our play to test what we had learned and to clarify why the ball went here or there. We practiced our serves and backhands, we lobbed, we smashed, we volleyed, and, of course, we attempted some dinks. The most astonishing part was how quickly we were able to begin a game and feel a sense of accomplishment. This is why the sport is fun and addictive- success can come swiftly, especially for those of us playing for recreation. Going professional is a whole other ballgame. “To become pro, a commitment to drill and learn needs to happen,” shares Rob. “The speed and reactions needed when trying to go pro increases very quickly, so it isn’t for everyone!”
Christina had revealed that prior to Elyn suggesting pickleball as a team building activity, she hadn’t heard of it, either, though just like the rest of us, she took to it quickly. “It has become a fun team activity,” says Christina. “I even talked to my kids about learning how to play. What’s great is that it’s fun for all ages.”
“Pickleball is hugely accessible,” adds Rob, “and it doesn’t need a lot of space or fancy equipment to start playing. Like any new thing, it takes time to get going. Pickleball boomed in the last several years due to a targeted marketing effort as well as a huge injection of funds from wealthy individuals who saw the opportunity it possesses. Social media, new organizations running events all over the country, and the efforts of the ambassadors (people who go to facilities to promote the sport at a grassroots level), allowed pickleball to spread very quickly once people saw it as the next sporting goldrush.”
Since the first ever pickleball tournament in 1976 with 60 players, the number of professional organizations and tournaments has grown dramatically. There are now tournaments for people of all ages, both for pros and amateurs. As of 2022, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) declared that nearly 4.5 million people were playing pickleball in the US, a 38% increase from 2020. Celebrities of all ages, including Justin Bieber, Serena Williams, and Leonardo DiCaprio are among these millions of pickleball enthusiasts. By the end of 2023, SFIA named pickleball “the fastest-growing sport in America.”
Pickleball’s Future at Stratton
Rob happily shared that the pickleball program at Stratton this summer will consist of daily clinics and play options, leagues every night, tournaments every other weekend, and weekend camp programs with guest pros. “The long-term goal for pickleball at Stratton is to become a base for tournaments, training camps, and leagues throughout the year,” he elaborates. “With sixteen outdoor pickleball courts, we are the largest outdoor facility in Vermont, which makes running tournaments for all levels easy, as we can cater to hundreds of players each weekend. Our first two tournaments were held in 2023 and we anticipate doubling our attendance from this past year for our Stratton Open event.” In addition, open playtimes, court reservations, and clinics with Rob or another pro on staff are available all year long.
It’s clear that pickleball is here to stay, and it’s only going to get bigger and bigger. “I never thought hitting a plastic ball with a paddle could be so addictive,” exclaims Kim. “Pickleball is like a hidden gem in the world of middle-aged moms/grandmothers, who may be a bit out of shape– easy to start, yet surprisingly challenging. It’s a perfect mix of fun and fitness, and every rally feels like a small victory. I’m just a newbie, but I’m already hooked on the joy of playing pickleball!”
We’re already planning our next game. The fastest-growing sport in the U.S. is making its mark on Southern Vermont, and we’re here for it!
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