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Rocky Clark shares his love of pickleball—a growing racket sport that’s physical and social

Seven years ago, about 30 Mainers played pickleball. Now—according to Rocky Clark, who volunteers as Atlantic Regional Director—there are about 1,000 players, the majority of them older adults.

The numbers can be explained many ways—including more access to courts both indoors and in public parks—but Roland Gagne of South Portland says it like this: “Rocky, basically, was the pied piper of pickleball in Maine.”

At 64, Rocky Clark continues to run his investment business, Clark & Stuart, full time while squeezing in as much time as he can playing, promoting, organizing and otherwise representing pickleball.

“It’s a big part of my life right now,” he says.

He was appointed Maine Pickleball Ambassador in 2013, New England Pickleball Ambassador in 2014 and Atlantic Regional Pickleball Director in 2015.

It all started with a 2012 vacation to Florida, where Rocky and his wife Anne visited friends at The Villages, about an hour north of Orlando. If ever there was a place to fall in love with pickleball, it would be The Villages, a large senior community that has nearly 200 pickleball courts and has been called “pickleball paradise.”

Rocky Clark of Portland, who volunteers as Atlantic Regional Pickleball Director, first fell in love with the sport while visiting friends in Florida in 2012. He’s helped pickleball blossom in Maine, from 30 players several years ago to upwards of 1,000 today. And most are older adults. Photo by Derek Guimond

“I saw them playing the game and fell in love with it,” Rocky says. “Anne and I were both tennis players, so that helped us learn this particular racket sport. It’s kind of like ping pong but almost as if you’re on the table. And, because we’re on a smaller court, and there are four of us, the closeness makes us social.”

“I’d given up tennis before,” Anne says. “But this is the size of a badminton court but with a lower net. The serve is underhand, which is easier on your shoulders. You can get the rudiments very quickly. But we’ve been studying strategy since the beginning, and there’s a lot of nuance to it.”

When they got back from Florida, the Clarks ordered a net and a set of balls and set up a court at home on Newman Street in Portland—moving the net once in a while for a car to pass.

“It’s just this quiet little neighborhood, so neighbors started poking their heads out to see what we were doing,” Anne says, commenting on the distinctive ping of the plastic ball. Before long, the Clarks had turned six of their neighbors into pickleball players, though Rocky and Anne are the only couple and the only players in their 60s.

Rocky worked with Portland Parks & Recreation to paint lines for pickleball courts at Deering Oaks Park and Deering High School, with Standish Recreation to paint courts at Sebago Lake Village and with Gorham Recreation to build three designated pickleball courts at Little Falls Recreation Park. In 2017, he was the recipient of the Martin’s Point Medallion Award given annually to the person most influential in the health journeys of Maine Senior Games athletes.

“I never thought I’d be doing this now, but it’s totally addictive once you get started.”

In addition to the Maine Senior Games, the Clarks have played in national tournaments four times, including a recent competition in Palm Springs, California. In singles, Rocky took bronze at nationals in 2014, gold in Atlantic Regionals in 2015 and gold in the Atlantic South in 2015.

Last summer, Rocky brought the competition to Racquet and Fitness Center in Portland in what turned out to be the largest racket sport tournament ever held in New England. A whopping 510 pickleball players got their game on at Racquet and Fitness Center on Congress Street, about 400 of them traveling from out of state.

“That was pretty exciting,” Rocky says. “We turned nine tennis courts into 24 pickleball courts over the weekend, and we could have used more if we’d had more room.”

“It’s the fastest growing sport I’ve ever seen,” said Matt Donahue, gym supervisor at the South Portland Community Center on Nelson Street, which has open pickleball sessions on weekdays from 8 to 11 a.m. “A lot of these people have been playing a while, but I still get people in here every single day who are interested in starting. And the people here are so gracious, because they know how much it will change their lives socially and physically.”

“You just show up, and usually there are extra paddles and people are very friendly,” Rocky says. “There’s usually somebody who will teach you to play.”

Photo by Derek Guimond

“It’s very social,” says Nancy Wallerstein, a 66-year-old from South Portland who plays three times a week. “I never thought I’d be doing this now, but it’s totally addictive once you get started. My husband is 70 and plays like a youngster.”

“I haven’t felt this sort of adrenaline since I was 20,” agreed John Rick, a semi-retired psychotherapist. “And I like that you can be down 9 to 1 but you can get back in the game really fast.”

Roland Gagne, who called Rocky the “pied piper,” is a full-time caregiver for his wife. But, three times a week, he drops her off at daycare, picks up his pickleball paddle and takes care of himself—both physically and socially.

“I’ve always played racket sports—tennis, racquetball, ping pong—and I only play pickleball now,” says Gagne, who is 76. “You don’t have as much court to cover. It’s half the size of a tennis court. For us older people, two steps in any one direction covers the court. Though, the first time I played, I was exhausted.”

He smiles and points to the bleachers, adding, “There’s time to sit down and chat with each other.”

“People say it’s so cool how pickleball changes their lives,” says Anne Clark. “Once they retire or lose a spouse, they don’t know what they’re going to do. But they find this sport and this community—a healthy, social and friendly environment.”

WHY IS IT CALLED PICKLEBALL?

In the summer of 1965, three dads returned from golf and found their families bored. They tried to set up badminton, but couldn’t find a shuttlecock. They substituted a Whiffle ball, lowered the badminton net and used some plywood for paddles. One of the wives, Joan Pritchard, said that it reminded her of the “pickle boat” in crew, where there’s a team comprised of leftover oarsmen from other boats. Two years later, the Pritchards named a dog Pickles. Contrary to legend, the game wasn’t named after the dog; the dog was named after the game.

PLACES TO PLAY

XL Sports World
400 North St., Saco
207–209–1280; xlsaco.com
Monday–Friday 9 a.m. to noon, Friday 6–8 p.m., $4

South Portland Community Center
21 Nelson St., South Portland
southportland.org
Monday–Friday, 8–11 a.m., $3 residents/$4 non-residents

The Point Community Center
345 Clarks Pond Parkway, South Portland
thepoint.community
Thursday & Friday, 8:30–11:30 a.m., $3

North Yarmouth Memorial School
120 Memorial Highway, North Yarmouth
Tuesday & Thursday, 10 a.m. to noon, $2

For more places to play and more about pickleball than you can shake a paddle at: usapa.org

Amy Paradysz is a writer, editor and photographer who lives in Scarborough.

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