SCV seniors picking pickleball

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At 6:30 a.m. every morning, two leaf-blowers are humming at Bouquet Canyon Park.

One of them is held by 61-year-old Ted Norris, a sponsored, and very dedicated, pickleball player. The leaf-blower dries the court and removes any debris that might clutter the area. Sometimes, when the court is dirty enough, he brings out the squeegees.

Norris’ routine is meticulous and rehearsed, but realistically, he’s been practicing it for two years. And five years ago, the outdoor pickleball courts didn’t even exist.

“In the five years I’ve been playing, we’ve come from four hours a week to what you see today and that is permanent outdoor courts,” said Santa Clarita pickleball ambassador, Don Conley.

Pickleball is a sport that combines elements from tennis, badminton and table tennis. Players use paddles to hit a ball resembling a wiffle ball over a net. It was invented in 1965 and there are 3.1 million players in the country according to the USA Pickleball Association.

“It’s very accessible,” Conley said. “We have the outdoor courts, which are 24/7, but seven days a week it’s available. I’ve seen entire families come out and play. Having the outdoor courts is a big step forward.”

When Conley first picked up a paddle, there were no pickleball programs in Santa Clarita. He had read about the sport in a newspaper article and wanted to try it to get a break from the monotony of a treadmill, his previous preferred form of exercise. 

He went to the Santa Clarita Sports Complex, only to find that the indoor pickleball program there had been dissolved since the article was written.

However, Conley was heard and a pickleball program started soon after. It proved to be wildly popular, especially with senior citizens who needed not just a form of exercise, but also a form of socialization. But the state of pickleball, which was two hours a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, wasn’t perfect just yet.

“The common complaint was four hours isn’t enough,” Conley said. “We love the game so much, we enjoy it so much, we want to play more.”

Conley’s activism led to indoor lined courts at the Sports Complex and four permanent outdoor courts at Bouquet Canyon Park, which were previously two tennis courts.

The increase in resources not only resulted in more pickleball players, but more competitive ones. Players began to travel to tournaments on the weekends. Within the tournaments, players are grouped by a ranking system similar to tennis, which starts at 2.5 and extends to 5.0 before reaching a pro ranking.

Norris, who is a 5.0, was one of a handful of SCV players who qualified for the Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Champions in Indian Wells in Palm Springs, which took place in early November. Five players from the SCV medaled in the tournament.

“It’s a really fun game,” Norris said. “One of the best things I like about it is there’s different ways of playing the game successfully which is, I don’t know that in any other sport, which is kind of cool.”

At 47 years old, Cindy Chairez is one of the younger players out of the SCV pickleball group and focuses mostly on indoor play and tournaments.

Chairez took up the sport in 2011 with her mom, playing mostly at parks. She liked it so much that she taught her kids as well as her husband, who she plays mixed doubles with at tournaments.

Like Norris, Chairez likes the game has any playing styles, which makes it easy for players of different abilities to enjoy.

“I could play with guys and even though they are the hard hitters, you don’t have to play that game,” she said. “You can do the deep game and you can still a really good game. You can make it however you want. It’s still going to be a good game, even if you have a mix of hard hitters, strategic, dinkers. You’ve just got to adjust to who you’re playing with.”

Although pickleball is a gentleman’s (and ladies’) game at the end of the day, players’ competitive nature still comes out in even recreational games.

“A lot. An absolute lot,” Chairez said of the frequency of trash talking. “It’s so funny because everyone can have smiles on their face and then when they get on the court, it begins. And that’s part of like, also the strategy too. Some people try to get in your head.”

Players like Conley, Norris and Chairez only expect pickleball to grow more in the coming years, both indoor and outdoor. There are public courts available at Bouquet Canyon Park and the Santa Clarita Sports Complex as well as the Newhall Community Center.

The Paseo Club in Valencia is also entering pickleball territory, offering clinics and events like “Pizza and Pickleball,” held for members every Friday.

With the hopes of the city building more courts in mind, Norris and his teammates continue to maintain the pickleball culture the group has already established, even if it’s just by using a leaf blower.

“A lot of people say it’s very addicting,” Norris said. “It’s just a game that you play for two to three hours. It’s not like tennis when you go out and play an hour. There’s no way you’re out here just for an hour. It’s just a game you keep playing, I guess it is addicting.”

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