Instead of wearing gowns and mortar boards, Mary Kennerty’s graduates wave paddles and wiffle-like balls, symbols of the prowess gained in their new sport: pickleball. Kennerty, who has been teaching classes for the Town of Mount Pleasant Recreation Department since last fall, proudly states that close to 100 students have graduated from her beginner sessions and have joined the exploding crowd of pickleball enthusiasts in the Lowcountry.
“People fall in love with pickleball,” Kennerty said. “One difference between pickleball and tennis is that pickleball is a community sport. In tennis, people often play in the same foursomes, but pickleball may have 16 players rotating over four courts, exercising but also socializing, with an emphasis on fun.”
Pickleball, if you haven’t heard, is a combination of tennis, ping-pong and badminton, played outdoors or indoors on a space smaller than a tennis court. The only equipment used is a paddle − slightly larger than ones used in ping pong − and a special perforated ball.
Reportedly the fastest-growing sport in the world, pickleball was created in 1965 by three dads near Seattle. The sport has been heartily embraced by senior citizens, many of whom had to abandon tennis and other high-impact sports because of failing knees, shoulders and hips.
“Unfortunately, I’m a little too old now to play the highly competitive active sports I used to enjoy,” said Chuck Reynolds, a former college football player. “But I enjoy the physical exercise you get from pickleball...and the competitiveness.”
The retired 67 year old now plays pickleball three or four times a week and recently competed in a two-day tournament at the Park West gym.
“I wanted to play pickleball because it was fun and fast,” said Carol Pierce, a 76-year-old resident of the Old Village who played tennis at the 4.5 level for many years.
“I was looking for a new challenge, so I thought pickleball would be fun,” Pierce said. “When I saw Mary’s lessons, I signed on right away and have not been disappointed.”
Kennerty, a former women’s basketball and tennis coach at Clemson, took the Tigers women’s tennis team to its first ACC championship. She has trained with tennis greats such as Billie Jean King and pickleball experts such as Sarah Ansbury and Wimbledon champion Joanne Russell. She is a Professional Pickleball Registry-certified coach and an energetic advocate for the game, its players and the need for even more and better pickleball facilities. The first tennis pro hired at the Country Club of Charleston in the ‘60s, Kennerty has a strong background in racket sports, which enables her to train even the top pickleball players. She has a very systematic method of training, with heavy emphasis on skills, rules and code of conduct.
Many who have taken group or private lessons from Kennerty have become addicted to the sport, playing outdoors during good weather and indoors during hot or inclement weather.
“Pickleball is good for the heart, and the soul,” said one 70-year-old student of Kennerty’s. “The exercise is great, you make new friends, become part of a sports community, and you get a real feeling of accomplishment as you improve.”
Although senior citizens seem to have adopted the sport, plenty of younger players have been drawn to the sport for athletic and social reasons.
“I have enjoyed trying a new game and meeting people,” said Tiffany Oldfield, a 37-year-old mother who upped her game after lessons from Kennerty.
Likewise, 23-year-old Carolina Esteve, an interior design associate from Charleston, has taken lessons from Kennerty and says she has enjoyed “meeting new people, learning a new sport, being active and having fun.”
But the sport has even younger players coming up through the ranks, playing pickleball during physical education in some Charleston County School District schools.
“Some of our schools have always been teaching the game, and others are just now catching on,” said Holly Kut, instructional specialist for health and physical education with the Charleston County School District.
“Not all of our schools have the equipment,” she said. “But now that the interest is there, teachers are working on finding funds to purchase the equipment.”
Already, she said, at least two high schools, including Wando High; four middle schools; and three elementary schools offer pickleball as part of their physical education curriculum. Facilities for pickleball are sprouting up all over Mount Pleasant. The town just opened its 25,000-square-foot Town Hall Gym, inviting pickleball players from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays and Fridays. The town also has indoor courts at the Park West Gym and outdoor courts at the popular Miriam Brown Community Center in the Old Village. The Miriam Brown courts will be resurfaced this summer. Pickleball is also offered at Daniel Island and on some neighborhood courts throughout town. Kennerty says anytime the heart rate is elevated, pickleball players are getting aerobic training, and as players improve their level of play, the aerobic workout becomes even more intense. Besides the physical activity, pickleball enthusiasts say they enjoy the mental aspects of the game, which one YouTube personality described as “a chess match on a court.”
“When playing pickleball, you have to remember the rules of the game, strategies of your play, how your opponent plays offense and defense, continually keeping your eye on the ball,” said Gloria Jean Voss, a 60-plus-year-old resident of Ivy Hall.
“Your brain is constantly shifting through all this information in nanoseconds,” she said. “You are exercising your brain, which is a very good thing.”
Kennerty said local pickleball organizers know they have turned a corner when even tennis professionals now are interested in playing pickleball. Not surprisingly, she has trained many of them.
For information on the Town of Mount Pleasant Recreation Department, go to tompsc.com/203/Recreation.