By Terri Munson
One of the best-kept secrets in Eastman is the avid pickleball community, which plays the game on hidden courts at the corner of Wellfield and Glenwood roads in Spring Glen Special Place. If you happen to walk by on a summer morning, you will hear lots of loud cheering and laughter. Your first thought might be that there are a bunch of children out playing. What you’ll find are adults who are as excited as a group of kids.
Pickleball is an easy-to-learn, impossible-to-perfect game. Legend has it that a family invented it using a lowered badminton net, ping-pong paddles, and Wiffle® balls. As the story goes, their dog named (you guessed it) Pickles would steal errant balls and often have to be chased for the game to continue. Had their dog been named Bowser or Fido… well, you get the idea.
From those humble beginnings in 1965, pickleball grew in ever expanding pockets of play across the country and now includes more than 3 million players in the US alone. Forty-five years after Pickles chased those balls, Fred and Milly Dunfey introduced the game to Eastman. They had both played on Eastman tennis teams for years. Through a chance encounter, Fred heard about pickleball. What really piqued his interest was hearing that pickleball is much easier on the joints. Since Milly had tennis elbow at the time, Fred decided to do some research. He was quickly convinced that this game was a perfect fit for Eastman.
Fred spoke with his friend Shawn Phelps, who arranged for him to make a presentation to the Recreation Committee and General Manager Ken Ryder. Although Fred had never actually played pickleball himself, he gathered information from the internet. The Dunfeys volunteered to run a test and cover the initial costs, which the Board of Directors endorsed.
They obtained permission to use one of the two Spring Glen tennis courts. He and Milly tried marking the court with tape, which quickly unraveled. With the help of Chief Maintenance Officer Mike Gornnert and some of his crew, they painted lines for two pickleball courts on either side of one of the tennis nets. Fred and Milly purchased portable nets with plastic bases that had to be filled with water. But before they could invite people to play, Fred and Milly had to learn the game. They attended clinics and, with their competitive-level tennis skills, were soon excellent players. In fact, Milly won the gold medal for the 2010 Pickleball National Senior Games in the Women’s 60+ bracket.
Fred and Milly began running clinics in Eastman, and people began playing on a regular basis. The Dunfeys became ambassadors of the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) and helped spread the word about the sport in Eastman, the Upper Valley, and beyond.
In 2013, Fred and Milly moved to Arizona, where they helped establish the Tucson Area Pickleball Club. They themselves competed in tournaments all over the country. Fred tried his darndest to win a national championship as Milly had but decided that coming in second at the USAPA National Champion Men’s Double 70+ bracket in 2017 at the age of 75 was probably his personal best.
Back in Eastman, people played on those two original outdoor courts for years. According to early adopter Dave Barber, “There were dead spots and cracks with grasses growing through them, but they were our courts.”
In 2014, former Eastman Member Carol Moses promoted the activity, which resulted in Mike Gornnert obtaining estimates to renovate the courts into four dedicated pickleball courts and one tennis/pickleball court. Beverly Austin, who was on the ECA Board, proposed the project. The stars were aligned, and the $42,000 expenditure was approved. The following July, the gorgeous new courts were ready for play. If you build it, they will come. And come they did.
For years, Sharon Parker organized group play three times a week. Way too many people showed up last July, so the decision was made to play seven days a week throughout the summer. Some hardy Eastman folks played in warm jackets and hats well into November last season before reluctantly going to indoor venues in Newport, New London, Claremont, and Lebanon (which Fred and Milly were also instrumental in establishing).
Pickleball is a free amenity for Eastman Members. Guests pay $5 for a day pass, or may purchase monthly or seasonal passes. The only times courts are unavailable are Friday mornings when the Summer Youth Programs are in session and the young campers are introduced to pickleball and tennis, and the balls are flying. Volunteers pickleball players enjoy passing on their love of the sport.
I first played at the 2018 Open House and have been a dedicated player ever since. Tennis and other racquet sport players usually become proficient very quickly. I had never played sports and was, frankly, the worst player on the planet. Everyone was so patient and helpful that I kept at it despite taking months to become a decent player. Although I credit pickleball with helping me stay in shape, the biggest benefit for me has been meeting and befriending so many fantastic people.
Go to the Pickleball Channel on Youtube to see videos and learn the ins and outs of the game. If, like I have, you become hooked, you can join tournament and non-tournament play wherever you travel. Use the app “Places2Play” and drop in on a game. People even go on pickleball vacations and pickleball cruises.
The annual Pickleball Open House is scheduled for Saturday, June 13, and the annual Beginners’ Clinic for Monday, June 15, both 9 a.m.-noon. Paddles and balls are provided by ECA. Sharon and her posse of enthusiastic players will eagerly introduce newcomers to the game.