By TIM KELLY
It’s Thursday at 7:30 a.m. in Ocean City, but it could pretty much be any day. The sun is out, the birds are out and so are the pickleballers.
The pickleball courts behind the Ocean City Intermediate School at 1901 Bay Avenue are abuzz with post-pandemic social distancing measures in place, with the emphasis on social.
The pop-pop-pop staccato of wooden paddles smacking the yellow perforated pickleballs fills the air — as does laughter, game-related chatter, and some occasional trash talk.
It will continue on like this all morning and into the afternoon, with a slight drop-off around the dinner hour, but not much.
“Some of us can’t get out here until after work,” says pickleball aficionado Don King, of Ocean City, who has been playing the game for more than a decade. “There are usually people playing here until it gets so dark it’s hard to see.”
That’s how loyal Ocean City’s pickleball community is to the game, invented in Washington State in the 1960s as a parent’s backyard diversion to entertain some bored kids. Though it’s been around for some time, the sport’s popularity has exploded in Ocean City and other South Jersey beach resort towns since the mid-90s.
Ricci Muzslay, 77, said she loves pickleball because “it makes me feel like a kid again.”
She’s been playing for more than 12 years and remembers when the players would use tape on tennis courts to mark off a pickleball court.
“That got old fast,” Muzslay said. “It took a few years (of gathering community support) but we have our own place now.”
In 2016, the city converted the old tennis courts behind the school into a state-of-the-art pickleball complex. Eleven courts comprise the area, most of them in continuous use, said Larry Heller of the Ocean City Recreation Department.
“The people here are great,” Heller said of the players. “Before the pandemic, we’d have 44 players and as many as 30 waiting to play most of the time. The only difference is now we have 44 players and only 15 waiting,” because of social distancing practices, he explained.
Players place their rackets on a rack, in a queue. There is a two-game limit per doubles team. Those who want to keep playing must then place their paddles back in the line. Because of all the interest and demand for court time, singles matches mostly occur during non-peak hours.
“To get out here and run around, get some strong physical activity and to laugh with your friends, is the best way to start off the day,” said Muzslay.
The 20-by-44 foot court resembles a badminton layout and the game is an athletic brew combining elements of tennis, racketball, volleyball and ping-pong. The small court is one of the more popular aspects with the more mature set.
“There’s not so much court to cover, so not as much running,” said King. “You can be older and still compete. You can have bumps and bruises and aches and pains and still compete. You’re not running as far but it’s still an intense cardio workout.”
Heller says the game attracts former racket sports enthusiasts, endurance athletes, surfers and others who sought out something different, but also to hang out with their friends.
“It’s a great way to meet people, have fun and get or stay in shape,” King said.
On the morning we visited the courts, the genders seemed evenly divided. While the crowd demographic skewed older, there was a decent minority of younger folks as well, with plenty of interaction across the generations. Everything moved along with a kind of laid-back precision.
As with most other activities these days, social media plays a big role in organizing and getting the word out about the sport.
Several local Facebook pages document the local scene, including local pages for Ocean City, Ventnor, and other towns with pickleball communities.
Nick Puschak’s Facebook page has a broad focus, providing information, news, and event schedules on a more regional basis.
Puschak calls his page “Pickleball is Life.”
“That’s because pickleball IS life,” he said with a grin.