Joel Pritchard’s real legacy? It's pickleball

Pickleball enthusiasts spar at 24 Hour Fitness in Bellevue - Tristan Baurick
Pickleball enthusiasts spar at 24 Hour Fitness in Bellevue
— image credit: Tristan Baurick

After the initial volley, Nick Sy and Grant Oie rush the net, closing in for the kill.

The pair have speed and youth on their side and are poised for an easy fourth- straight win against challengers more than double their age.

Sy’s arm snaps through the air like a rubber band, rocketing the ball into the realm of the unseen.

But Nikki Ryan, 74, spots it. She sways to her right and angles her paddle for a graceful deflection. The ball dinks just over net and pulls Oie low for a last-second return.

A crooked smile spreads across the face of Ryan’s partner, Mark Friedenberg, as he spins around and fires the ball back from between his legs.

“You catch that one?” the 58-year-old says, turning his head to a line of other pickleball enthusiasts waiting their turn at a Bellevue fitness club Monday.

“It’s like this every evening,” says one of the club’s staffers. “The lines start around 4 and sometimes they don’t quit playing till 10. Pickleball draws all kinds.”

They’re young, old, spry, rotund, East Indian, Filipino, Protestant German and Irish Catholic. Many have played for decades, learning the sport on driveways, backyards, and P.E. classes in Connecticut, Iowa and California.

They carry a selection of paddles, some of which are custom-made for a sport that crosses badminton, tennis and ping-pong. They can debate, at length, the various qualities of pickleball play on carpet, concrete and wood surfaces.

But most are surprised to find that the sport was first played by a Congressman and his buddies one summer day on Bainbridge Island.

“It just had its 40th anniversary,” says Ryan, piping up when others are fazed by questions about the sport’s history. The ten-year Pickleball veteran recently traveled to Bainbridge on a pilgrimage to see Pickleball’s first court, tucked in a backyard overlooking Pleasant Beach.

“It was little overgrown and some trees were growing in close,” she said. “But there it was, the first place it was played.”

Few men make a mark as grand as the late Joel Pritchard. His political career ranged through the state Legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives and two terms as the Washington’s lieutenant governor. He’s known for his pivotal role in the liberalization of the state’s abortion laws and for various anti-gambling laws. He was a staunch defender of civil rights until his death in 1997 and fought hard enough for the environment to have a prominent Eagle Harbor park named for him.

But an odd, cross-bred sport with a funny name may carry his widest-reaching legacy.

“We’re all really proud of the fact that something that came out of our backyard on Bainbridge has gone all over the world and has given a lot of pleasure to a lot of people,” says Pritchard’s daughter Peggy Pritchard-Olson, who now lives in Edmonds.

While her dad invented the sport, Olson says it was her and her brother’s summertime boredom that provided the spark.

“Dad invented it, but I’m taking the credit for making him do it,” says Frank Pritchard, recounting the summer of 1965 when he was 12 years old. “We were whining that there was nothing to do - you know that whole recitation you do when you’re a kid. Dad said that, when he was a kid, he would have invented something to do. He said, ‘why don’t you make up a sport.’ We turned it around on him and challenged him to make one himself.”

And so he did. Pritchard crafted a few paddles in his wood shop, borrowed a wiffle ball, dusted off the badminton court, lowered the net and a new game was born.

“Dad started trying out all kinds of different balls, different paddles, different rules and more people got involved,” Olsen says. “Barney (McCallum) came from down the beach and dad’s friend Bill Bell got involved.”

The trio’s pioneering enthusiasm forced the children to the sidelines.

“The funny thing is it was supposed to be for the kids,” Olson says. “But the adults took over and we could never get on the court. They were obsessed with the game and it took over the whole summer.”

Despite the name, no pickles were involved in the game’s invention - nor, as legend would have it, were any dogs.

According to Pickleball handbooks and Internet sites, the game was named after the family cocker spaniel, Pickles, who purportedly would chase down errant shots.

But the Pritchard siblings say the history books need to be rewritten.

“Ok, there’s the ‘official’ history and then there’s the real story,” Olson says. “It was not named after the dog because we didn’t get the dog until years after the game started. The dog was named after the game. Not the other way around.”

Olsen isn’t sure exactly how ‘pickle’ was combined with ‘ball’ but recalls her dad often declaring that he’d put an opponent in a ‘pickle’ with a sly corner shot.

Frank Pritchard believes the name may have come from his mother, Joan Pritchard, who was a competitive rower and sometimes referred to the ‘pickle boat,’ a name assigned to the last boat to cross a finish line.

“Nobody remembers how it came to be called ‘Pickleball,’ but I think somebody needed a reason why it had that name and the dog story sounded good and eventually stuck.”

The game spread across the island and eventually past its shores. A few island families took the game on the road, promoting it at exhibitions and sports trade shows. An easy sport to pick up, Pickleball caught on with school P.E. classes and at retirement communities.

“It’s like eating potato chips, you can’t stop.” says Friedenberg, who serves as president of the USA Pickleball Association and was a national champion in 2004 and 2003. “Anyone can play it because it has easy rules and doesn’t cost a lot to play.”

Friedenberg calls the sport one of the fastest growing in America, with thousands of people picking up a Pickleball paddle each year.

The sport has found considerable popularity with older people looking for an active hobby with a quicker pace than golf or shuffleboard.

“It’s keeping seniors alive,” Friedenberg says.

Ryan can testify to that claim.

“It keeps me fit,” the 74-year old says. “You stretch, bend, lunge, twist and use a lot of your muscles. It keeps me mentally sharp too, because you’re always thinking fast, always following the ball and looking for a place to put it.”

But most of all, it’s additively enjoyable, she says.

“I’ve played for five hours once,” she said. “If I’m getting groceries I’ll swing by the club and play a few matches. It’s hassle-free and easy and I stay in shape because it’s fun.”

That’s why Joel Pritchard considered the sport his finest achievement.

“It’s really amazing,” said Olson. “I remember dad, just before he died, he had his final party with everybody around. He said that out of all the things he’d done in his life, he was most proud of that game. It’s made such a lasting impression on so many people. It’s made people healthy and happy. It’s been growing for 40 years. It may last forever.”

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