After the pandemic started, Jim Louie noticed that he was getting headaches.
He wasn’t quite sure what was causing them. Like everyone else’s, Louie’s lifestyle had been interrupted by the lockdowns and the sense of isolation from others.
Months into the pandemic, Louie ran into a neighbor, Roxanne Chinn, on the street. She asked him if he wanted to get together with her and a group of others to play pickleball outdoors.
Louie was astounded. He had actually started playing pickleball in 2019, right before the pandemic hit. Louie had swiftly fallen in love with the sport, and started playing indoors at Milpitas’ Senior Center, where it was offered one afternoon each week. At the Senior Center, someone else also invited Louie to play at the Milpitas Sports Center, so he started playing indoors there as well.
But after everything shut down in March of 2020, there were no options for playing.
Now here was his friend, inviting him to play pickleball, in the summer of 2020. She told him that the group, mostly consisting of seniors, met on Monday mornings at Peter Gill Memorial Park, off of Santa Rita Drive and Paseo Refugio. They all had masks and made sure to social distance.
Excited by the idea of getting out and picking up the pickleball paddle again, Louie showed up bright and early Monday morning. But to his disappointment, no one else was there.
Then he realized…he had shown up an hour and a half early! So at about 8:30am, one by one, people started to come out and set up their lawn chairs and nets on the park’s handball courts.
That day, Lin played pickleball for the first time in months. He continued to meet with the group, and just like that, the headaches that had been plaguing him since the beginning of the pandemic started to go away.
The fresh air, exercise, and socialization with others seemed to greatly impact his health.
“When I went back to playing pickleball, all the headaches went away,” Louie explained. “And I slept better. Mentally, physically, spiritually – everything improved.”
He felt refreshed and invigorated, doing a sport that he loved.
At present, pickleball is known as the fastest-growing sport in the United States.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) 2021 Topline Participation Report, 4.2 million people played pickleball in 2020. In 2019, 3.46 million played the sport. The growth of 21.3% in one year reflects the fact that the sport appeals to people across all age groups. Currently, the majority of people who play pickleball are seniors, but the recent boom shows that the game’s starting to be embraced by younger players as well.
The beauty of pickleball is that it doesn’t require a steep learning curve. One can pick it up quickly and develop competency in it. Since it isn’t as high-intensity as tennis, pickleball is easy on the joints, while also providing good exercise. Combining elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong, pickleball is widely recognized as a fun sport that provides many with a great avenue for socializing with others.
Mabel Shiramizu has been a Milpitas resident for 40 years. She has been playing pickleball for the last 6 years. She believes that pickleball, like many things in life, is easy to learn, but hard to master.
“All of us here value the importance of staying active. We don’t want to be couch potatoes,” said Shiramizu.
Stephen Balsbaugh, who is a USA Pickleball Association Ambassador for Milpitas, is one of the seniors who meets at Peter Gill Park to play. He has been playing for the past couple of years, and describes the sport as “addictive.”
He, along with others in his pickleball group, wishes that Milpitas had dedicated outdoor pickleball courts for the community to use.
“San Jose has 50 pickleball courts. Palo Alto has 15. They’re filled with pickleball players every morning, 7 days a week,” said Balsbaugh. “But Milpitas has zero pickleball courts. There’s not a single place you can go, and take a ball and paddle, and just play pickleball.”
For now, this group of seniors, which ranges from 18-24 people at a time, meets at Peter Gill Park every Monday, weather permitting. They’re also there every other Friday, as well. They also meet at the Milpitas Sports Center, where nets are set up in the gym, to play pickleball indoors 2 times a week.
Since there aren’t any pickleball courts at Peter Gill, they must bring their own nets and set them up on the handball courts, which are located near the basketball courts. With a net set up on either side of the handball wall, the group is able to play 4 people at a time on each of the 2 nets.
Louie’s neighbor, Chinn, started playing pickleball at the Milpitas Sports Center 6 years ago. In 2019, she and other players found out the City was resurfacing the tennis courts and basketball courts at Peter Gill Park.
“So we made a mad dash to request the City to paint pickleball lines here on the handball courts. And they said yes. They did it within days,” said Chinn. “So we got our pickleball lines here.”
The only thing is, the group started realizing that playing pickleball on the handball courts was not exactly ideal. One end of the court is close to the grass and the other end is right next to the handball wall.
“This is designed for handball, so the space at the ends are very short,” said Louie. “People have stepped on the grass and slipped and fell. And on the other side, they’ve bumped into the wall.”
Recently, Balsbaugh and others from his pickleball group spoke at the December 14 Milpitas City Council meeting. Council had been discussing the Parks and Recreation Master Plan, which delves into their goals for improving parks and bringing in more recreational opportunities for residents to enjoy.
After Balsbaugh and others expressed the need for dedicated pickleball courts in Milpitas, Council discussed the possibility of launching a pilot program for pickleball next year in order to assess the need in the community.
In fact, in the Master Plan document itself, it mentions the possibility of adding 3 full-size pickleball courts at Sinnott Park.
But a few of the players that spoke to The Beat were concerned that there are houses close to Sinnott Park, and the people living in them might be bothered by the sound of balls hitting paddles.
It’s not an unfounded concern. Just last year, in the City of Berkeley, residents started to complain about all the noise from pickleball games occuring at a nearby park. They started a petition, demanding that the city revert the pickleball courts to tennis courts.
Milpitas’ Parks and Recreation Master Plan also mentions removing one of the handball courts and converting it to a pickleball court at Peter Gill Park, along with painting pickleball lines on existing tennis courts at Hall Park.
Milpitas Councilmember Evelyn Chua has gone out to see the Peter Gill Park pickleball group play, and wants to work to find a solution:
“I believe that we do need pickleball courts in Milpitas. How to do it, we don’t know at this point. We need a clear idea once we do the pilot and see the usage, and get feedback from other residents,” said Councilmember Chua in an interview with The Beat.
When asked about the first step toward potentially creating dedicated pickleball courts, Chua said that, short-term, they’d need to get a small amount of funding together to do the pilot project.
And long-term, she said that they would have to build it into their Capital Improvement Plan, which could take 2-3 years to get through.
But it’s definitely a start, and things do seem to be moving in the right direction.
However, Louie can’t help but feel a little disappointed that the Council didn’t put anything in writing about next steps before approving the Master Plan.
“I would’ve liked to have it in writing. But it’s not a total loss. I felt encouraged that they were all supportive on the Council,” said Louie. “It’s embarrassing for our community when a lot of us have to go outside of the city to find a dedicated pickleball court. Milpitas cannot be a lagger in an area that’s important to the community, especially senior citizens.”
After the meeting, Balsbaugh spoke to The Beat about how urgent the need is for the courts among the many seniors who are currently playing pickleball. He’d like to see one of the tennis courts at Peter Gill Park used to accommodate pickleball players in the short-term.
“They can add markings and make it dual use for less than a thousand dollars,” said Balsbaugh, who has been studying the tennis courts over recent weeks. He has found that there are certain times of the day, after 10am, when the tennis courts aren’t being heavily used.
Others in the group are just hoping for dedicated pickleball courts, as they’re concerned about infringing on the space of tennis players.
Currently, at the Milpitas Sports Center, there are 6 courts available with temporary markings for pickleball players to use during 3 windows throughout the week: Tuesdays 5:30-9pm, Wednesdays 8-11am, and every other Friday from 8am-11am.
In an email, Deputy City Manager Walter C. Rossman also wrote to The Beat that “Robert Brown, Gill, Pinewood and Hall parks have pickleball lines.” But Rossman also mentioned that Balsbaugh has expressed concern over the accuracy of the lines at Pinewood and Hall; staff is planning to study those closely in January.
As an Ambassador, Balsbaugh wants to focus on introducing the sport to a broader range of ages. He’d also love, along with other players in the pickleball group, to host clinics and give lessons to kids.
As the group waits to see how the City of Milpitas moves forward next year in addressing the pickleball issue, they will continue to find opportunities to play when and where they can.
During the pickleball group’s weekly games at Peter Gill Park, people sit together and chat as they await their turns. Some of them munch on food and sip coffee. The group is lively, and it’s obvious that the sport has led to them bonding with one another.
“When people come together and socialize, it’s good for your health. People forget how important that is. It’s a sense of belonging,” Louie said.