For the past four winters, 67-year-old Jennifer Williams has been coming to Ajijic from Calgary. She’s one of a flock of Canadian “snowbirds” who’s landed each year at the same gated community in La Floresta that becomes their winter home.
Hailing from different Canadian provinces, these snowbirds get to enjoy not only a welcome escape from frigid winters, but the close friendships they’ve formed within the community’s summer camp-like atmosphere. And similar to a summer camp, residents seem to find every excuse to come together – whether it’s for happy hour, bridge, tai chi, poolside potlucks, lunch outings, or their latest obsession: pickleball.
Although Williams experienced her first pickleball game two years ago, she wholeheartedly jumped into it last year. “Two years ago, my Canadian friend living in Ajijic encouraged me to join her at the Raquet Club in San Juan Cosala for a free beginning pickleball clinic. All it took was one clinic and I was hooked.”
Everywhere you turn, it seems that the sport of pickleball is exploding in popularity, lakeside being no exception. There’s even an official local website – Lake Chapala Pickleball – dedicated solely to this well-loved sport.
With pickleball’s popularity constantly rising, its origins date back to 1965 when Joel Pritchard, a former congressman from Washington State, thought up the game in Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. His friend, Barney McCallum, was one of three original founders, and ran the first company that provided pickleball equipment, in 1968.
According to Prichard’s wife, the name “pickleball” came from the sport of rowing, where a pickle boat has a mixed crew, similar to the fact that pickleball is a mix of three sports: tennis, ping-pong and racquetball.
Since the drive to the Raquet Club can be a bit of a stretch for the more eastern lakeside residents, pickleball enthusiasts such as Williams were thrilled when tennis and pickleball instructor Carlos Castro opened up pickleball courts at Chapala’s Hotel Villa Montecarlo.
“Some of us started attending Carlos’s free clinics on Friday afternoons, which he puts on to encourage newbies to try out the sport,” says Williams. “We figured, once we got the beginning moves down, we would eventually graduate to his intermediate and advanced clinics.”
Bob Hamilton, from Alberta, has become a daily pickleball player, having learned the game only two months ago while he and his wife, Nora, were vacationing in Manzanillo.
“Nora and I heard about pickleball from Jennifer (Williams), so we tried out some lessons in Manzanillo and, like the rest, it hooked us.”
Williams sees pickleball as a more social, lighthearted game than tennis.
“Pickleball is more akin to a round-robin competition,” she says. “We play closer to the net, and by playing doubles we can chit-chat on the court and congratulate one another. I like that it’s such a social sport.”
Lena Roberts, a single 77-year-old woman from Quebec, plays pickleball four times a week. She’s been coming to Ajijic for four years, staying three months at a time.
“Unlike tennis,” says Roberts, “pickleball tends to be easier on the body and on the joints. Also, since we play doubles, I’m not having to run around the court chasing the ball all by myself.”
Although some may snub their noses at pickleball players, thinking of them as the “poor cousins” of tennis, Williams completely disagrees. “Just like tennis, pickleball requires flexibility, stamina, muscle, and balance,” she says. “Plus, it’s fast-moving.”
Robert Lori, from Ontario, adds, “Pickleball is a great exercise, and can be quite strenuous – as effective for me as a gym workout.”
Janet Schindel, from Saskatchewan, chimes in: “I think what draws many of us to pickleball is that we are working hard, getting a great cardio workout, and having fun all the while. With each game lasting about 15 minutes, most of us play for at least two hours.”
As a beginner, Bob Hamilton likes that he’s able to play with those who’ve played for years.
“I appreciate that pickleball isn’t an elitist sport, so I can improve my skills by playing with more advanced players. Although it’s easy to get started, it’s harder to advance because of all the subtleties of the game.”
For Tom Workman from New Brunswick, playing pickleball is a good excuse for not sleeping in. “I like exercising early in the day and hanging out with friendly, like-minded folks.
“One of the best things about pickleball,” says Williams, “is that there’s no need to organize a group in order to play. I can simply pick up and head to the courts. Even if I don’t own my own racquet, they’re available for rent.
“For those of us who aren’t coupled, sometimes we can feel like the odd man out, but in pickleball everyone is welcome. It’s truly an inclusive, welcoming sport – and great fun.”
The cost to play pickleball at Hotel Villa Montecarlo is 100 pesos per day or 1,000 pesos per month. Free introductory sessions run every Thursday, 4-5 p.m. For information, visit LakeChapalaPickleball.com.