Pickleball in Marin

Marin Magazine, Pickleball

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.

Marin Magazine, Pickleball
A game at Thigpen Sports Courts in Hamilton

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; a group of bored friends created it 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-sized courts.

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 not limited to the older age set or former athletes. Silvas says his local classes and tournaments are peppered with players of all ages and skillsets. 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-year olds,” 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.

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

Where to play in Marin County?

Marin County has a growing number of venues for pickleball lessons, practice, and tournaments. Novato’s parks department offers classes and open play at Hill School and Thigpen Sports Courts (most days). Rolling Hills Tennis Club in Novato holds Thursday evening clinics. In San Rafael, pickleball is offered at Boro Community Center and Albert Park. This past June, Pueblo Park in Santa Venetia inaugurated a new court that is open every day. Those interested should contact George Silvas for information about class schedules, open play, and pickleball socials.

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 regularly competes at the Thigpen Sports Courts, convinced her engineer husband, Sandy, to come out. “He never liked sports much,” she says. “But he loves this.”

Marin Magazine, Pickleball
George Silvas instructs players who use whiffle-like balls and unique wood or graphite paddles.

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.”

For more information, contact George Silvas at [email protected].

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

Kirsten Jones Neff

Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.