Now that would be quite a yarn for a Women’s History Month feature: the untold story of how the game of pickleball was actually invented by the ladies of Pleasant Beach. 

Alas, history is quite settled on the point, and credit will forever go to three men. So it goes. 

But lo these many decades later, as the game devised on Bainbridge Island in the 1960s lays claim as the world’s fastest growing sport, you’d be hard pressed to find a more welcoming, gender-inclusive space than pickleball. 

Men may have invented the game, but women are building it up, and building something more besides: community.  

“Because so many of us are older, we’re not about competition,” says Mary Utley, part of a regular foursome at the Founders Courts at Battle Point Park. “We’re about having fun, collaboration and being kind to each other. It’s just part of who we are now as mature adults.”

Even in the darkest days of the pandemic, the Founders Courts have been full whenever the weather is anywhere north of awful. Masks are still required during play, but the self-contained “pod” of Utley, Susan Johnson, Ellen Weaver and Louise Grant have enjoyed an extra degree of health certainty in the foursome. Bonds they’ve developed as players and friends have only deepened.

The four women have the perspective of age, growing up in a time before Title IX brought some measure of parity to women’s athletics. While competitive, interscholastic team sports had yet to catch up, three of the women did enjoy a healthy mix of intramural and individual athletics in their youth. 

Johnson skied, played competitive tennis and field hockey, and golfed with her father. Weaver played tennis and rode horses. Going primarily to girls schools, Grant played IM basketball and college tennis.

Only Utley recalls being consigned to the stands while the boys were on the field. 

“I spent a lot of time going to my brothers’ sporting events, and watching them play football, which I was always very envious of,” she says. “For a female, there were really no organized sports.” 

While they stayed active to varying degrees into adulthood, pickleball found its way into their lives years before its current worldwide rage.  

Grant’s parents were “early adopters” and played on a pickleball court at their Seattle home in the 1970s. “I didn’t realize how unusual that was,” she says. “We just kind of fooled around with our kids’ tricycles on the courts.”

Utley discovered the game when she and her family moved to Bainbridge 30 years ago. They built a court on their West Port Madison property, and she shared the court with her neighbors and friends. 

“My family grew up on a pickleball court, but we never really played the ‘real’ pickleball,” she says. “Three or four years ago, my friend asked, ‘Why aren’t we playing pickleball?’ I said, ‘I don’t know!’ All of a sudden we realized it’s come alive. Ever since then, I’ve been addicted to it.”

Pickleball could be found at Bainbridge Athletic Club, on re-striped tennis courts and in various backyards. But when talk of dedicated courts at Battle Point came up a few years ago, the women signed right on. 

“We all jumped on that pretty quickly, because we knew we really needed some courts of our own instead of using a basketball court or a tennis court or whatever,” Utley says. “There were just too many people interested in it to not have new courts of our own.” 

The Founders Courts opened last August, and the telltale tok-tok-TOK of the paddled ball has echoed across the park pretty much dawn to dusk ever since. With the pandemic raging, the timing couldn’t have been better. 

“With Covid happening, I realized pickleball saved me in so many ways,” Utley says. “Physically, it kept the endorphins going. Emotionally, I still have all these connections, people I was around but not too close to. Mentally, we’re in this big ‘I don’t know where we are’ phase, but I was here. Spiritually, it’s just fun. This game has the fun factor, and that’s the key element.” 

Says Weaver: “During this Covid period, this is really my only socializing I’m getting, and I really need it.” 

The foursome have only grown closer. When a family need comes up, another player is there. When an emergency hits, another player is there. 

“I liked to play pickleball because it’s such a great game,” Utley says, “but there was this bonus that I didn’t expect – the camaraderie, the friendliness of just being with this community and this group.”  

Adds Johnson: “The friendships that you make in this community, they’re instant friends. I don’t think I’ve experienced that in any other sport, to this degree.” 

For those who do seek the extra edge of competition, well, women are some of the most formidable players on the courts. Just ask the men. 

“Pickleball is a game where placement beats power, and that allows women to compete and often beat men in coed matches,” says Clay Roberts, Bainbridge pickleball impresario. “It’s very easy to learn, so if you’ve ever played a racquet sport before, you’ll be able to play pickleball within a few sessions. 

“It has provided a competitive sports option for many older women who didn’t have that option growing up, and they are finding that they are good athletes and enjoy the competition.”

And yet: Somewhere out there, there’s a woman of a certain age reading this who’s wondering, Is pickleball for me? It looks fun, but could I do it? 

Susan Johnson has a short answer: “Forget about it. Just come out and play.” 

Johnson felt the same way her first day on the courts, “like seventh grade at 70,” a flashback to walking into the school lunchroom and wondering if anyone would sit with her. 

Not to worry. A stranger crossed the courts and invited Johnson to join the play. When she came back a week later, they remembered her name. 

“Just come on out,” Johnson says. “We’re all welcoming. We’ll take care of you and get you in.” 

To get involved with Bainbridge Island Pickleball, show up at the Founders Courts at Battle Point Park pretty much any day to watch the gam