Activity at the recently refurbished courtyard at the Thousand Oaks Family YMCA on a recent Monday evening tells the story of the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. while illustrating San Antonio’s love of all things social.

On one side, two full-size tennis courts were occupied by just four players, rackets in hand, aiming at fast-moving fuzzy yellow tennis balls.

On the other side, 10 smaller courts were bustling with more than 50 people talking, laughing and swinging small square paddles at yellow whiffle balls.

Some players on the busy courts took a relaxed approach to play, hitting balls over a waist-high net amid friendly chatter. Other courts were the scene of intense battles — the ball moving rapidly back and forth between opponents’ paddles without touching the ground.

The ages of the players on these smaller courts varied; the youngest were teenagers, dressed in high school athletic wear supporting MacArthur or Madison high schools, while the oldest players were in their 70s or 80s.

Despite their differences, these people all had one thing in common: they were there to play pickleball, the nation’s fastest-growing sport.

This booming, easy-to-learn pastime is a hybrid of tennis, table tennis and badminton — and has already developed a large local following.

It’s San Antonio’s community-driven nature that’s driving pickleball’s popularity in the 210, said 75-year-old Ed Beyster, the acknowledged father of San Antonio pickleball.

Once a formal representative for USA Pickleball, the national governing body for the sport in the U.S., Beyster said the fast pace of matches and the smaller court size allows more people to cycle through games compared to tennis. But the sport’s popularity goes beyond that.

“The essence of pickleball is really the camaraderie,” Beyster said. “It’s a really social sport.”

Vistors and gym-goers play pickleball on the new courts at the Thousand Oaks Family YMCA in November.
New pickleball courts that opened in November at the Thousand Oaks Family YMCA drew experienced players and newbies alike. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Pickle what?

Pickleball was created by former U.S. Rep Joel Pritchard, a Republican from Washington State, and his businessmen buddies Bill Bell and Barney McCallum in 1965.

According to USA Pickleball, the story goes that Pritchard and Bell returned from a day of golfing to Pritchard’s home, where they found their families sitting around with nothing to do. They set out to create a game “that the whole family could play together.”

Pritchard’s property included an old badminton court, but the men had no badminton rackets or birdies. Instead, they improvised a game by using table tennis paddles and a perforated plastic ball. The following weekend, the men invited McCallum to play their new game, adjusting the net’s height and creating rules along the way.

Pickleball was born — although the source of the game’s strange name is still debated today. Some say the sport was named after Pritchard’s family dog, Pickles. Others say Pickles came later, and the name “pickleball” came out of a reference to the thrown-together leftover nonstarters in the “pickle boat” of crew races. 

The sport didn’t find its footing in San Antonio until the new millennium, Beyster said, when he brought the game to San Antonio in 2008 after discovering it during a visit to Arkansas.

Back home in Windcrest, the former tennis player bought a tennis facility behind his house and turned one court into the city’s first pickleball hub. He named the small club the Beyster Windcrest Tennis and Pickleball Center.

From that one court, demand started to grow.

“Within the first month, we were just over-packed,” he said. “So we put two more courts in, and then that got packed and we put four more courts in.”

Soon other local gyms and sports clubs started asking Beyster for help making and opening their own pickleball courts — at the request of their members, he said. The sport really took off locally with the opening of Chicken N Pickle in 2020. The location in Northwest San Antonio is part of a pickleball facility/restaurant/bar chain headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri.

Beyster sold his Windcrest courts in 2020, but the facility remains an active pickleball spot.

“I think especially during COVID, people wanted to get outside and get more active, and that’s definitely made [pickleball] grow even more in the last couple of years,” Beyster said.

A growing community

San Antonio resident Ken Kurburski, 65, has been playing pickleball for roughly two years, starting at the Chicken N Pickle during the height of the pandemic.

“Bitten by the pickleball bug,” the former tennis player said he’s lost 30 pounds, lowered his blood pressure, and regained control of his Type II diabetes — all thanks to pickleball.

For him, the best part of pickleball is its social aspect; Kurburski said he’s made some good friends through the sport. He attended the recent grand opening of the 10 courts at the Thousand Oaks Family YMCA.

It’s an especially great activity for seniors, said Ernesto Sanchez, the Thousand Oaks Family YMCA’s pickleball specialist, because it gets them up and moving, it’s easy to learn, and it can help them stay socially active. Sanchez, 70, said he enjoys playing almost daily with his daughter Kate, 25, and son Ben, 22.

Mario Wright serves the ball while playing pickleball at Morgan’s Wonderland Sports complex on Thursday.
Mario Wright serves during a game of pickleball at Morgan’s Wonderland Sports complex in 2021. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Sanchez said he was blown away by the turnout for the grand opening of the YMCA’s courts, which attracted more than 100 people wanting to play or watch the game.

“What I like about pickleball is that it’s a community. It’s about people getting to know each other and their families,” Sanchez said. He whipped out his phone to show just how many pickleball-related contacts he’s added over the past few years — easily more than 20. “We check in on each other, and it’s just a really supportive network.”

At a time where there is so much division in the world, pickleball brings people together, said avid pickleball player and San Antonio resident Angelica Ramos, 48. Ramos said she even goes on an annual “pickleball vacation” to play with new friends in different places around the world.

“It’s for people of all ages, and it can be as competitive as you want it to be,” Ramos said. “When I first got into pickleball, it was a lot of people around my age playing, but now it’s for everyone.”

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.