Tournament in Caribou illustrates growing popularity of pickleball

Danny Raymond displays his game form while sporting a “play pickleball” T-shirt on April 16 at the Caribou Wellness and Recreation Center. (Courtesy of O’Meara)

A new sport is gaining in popularity in Caribou. At a pickleball tournament on Monday, April 16 at the Caribou Wellness and Recreation Center, 19 teams of doubles competed on two courts for the honor of champion.

Organized by Recreation Director Matt Bouchard, the tournament is the first of its kind in the area.  Bouchard said the sport has been played in Aroostook County for about a year and half and is very popular in southern Maine. He only expects popularity to grow in The County.  

“It’s coming,” said Bouchard, explaining that several people regularly play the sport during the week at the recreation center. The game also is played in Presque Isle, Van Buren, and Edmundston, New Brunswick, he said. On Monday, people came from as far away as Bangor and Rockland to compete in the Caribou tournament.

Tournament participant and regular pickleball competitor Dale Plourde said that he is the oldest player in the group at 71. Jim Madore said he plays in order to help “keep young.”

All day Monday, two small courts marked out with green tape on the recreation center’s gym floor were alive with active adults chasing down fuchsia colored balls similar to wiffle balls. With a friendly but competitive spirit, the two-person teams competed to be the first to gain eleven points. According to player Victor Nauhan, the game also sometimes is played to seven if many teams are competing. The winner needs to win by two points as is common with other net sports.

“We also play outside,” said Nauhan, though he noted that the wind can be a challenge.

The type of ball used in pickleball allows a player to put quite a bit of spin on the ball, according Nauhan. That and some of the other nuances of the game are what make it interesting, he said.

Danny Raymond, a Caribou fireman, is well versed in the history of pickleball. Speaking between matches, Raymond related how pickleball originated in the 60’s when former Washington state representative Joel Pritchard and some of his friends wanted more exercise for their families. Combining aspects of tennis, ping pong, and badminton, pickleball gained in popularity in the 70’s. The first tournament was played in 1971, according to Raymond.  There are national and international associations dedicated to the sport.

Like many of the participants at the tournament, Raymond is enthusiastic about pickleball because of the exercise it affords.

Jim Madore (left) and Dale Plourde were among the participants in a pickleball tournament held April 16 at at the Caribou Wellness and Recreation Center.
(Courtesy of John O’Meara)

“I started to play because I wanted to lose weight. I hated going to the gym,” he said. Now 48 pounds lighter than when he took up the new sport, Raymond said he enjoys the social aspects of pickleball too.

Several tournament competitors emphasized the need for strategy when playing pickleball. An unusual aspect of the sport is that the seven feet of the court closest to the net — the kitchen — is designated as a non-volley zone — an area where the ball cannot be hit before it bounces. This means players must calculate carefully their position on the court and the placement of the pickleball.

Raymond said that pickleball is extremely popular in Florida and is taught in some schools across the nation. On most mornings, eight or ten people can be found playing pickleball at the Caribou Wellness and Recreation Center. Several firemen are regulars.  “In the last six months, it has really exploded,” said Raymond.

An indoor, easily accessible sport, pickleball is great exercise, he said, recounting how one player recorded burning 2,300 calories while playing pickleball.

While many of Monday’s participants were middle-aged, some people in their 20s and younger vied for the championship. In the end, Chad McCarthy and Danny Raymond won the men’s doubles, Beverly Polley and Karen Higgins won the women’s doubles, and Jim Madore and Leah Levasseur took top spot for mixed doubles.

For more information on this and other activities at the Caribou Wellness and Recreation Center, call 493-4224.

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