When Aspen local John Romanus tells his friends how into pickleball he is, they tell him he’s crazy. “I play with my 16-year-old son, and we have these intense battles,” he says. “It gets so heated we had to buy a drone. We fly it overhead, and when there is a questionable call, we watch the video.”
The 42-year-old day trader certainly doesn’t mess around when it comes to his newfound passion. “I never thought in a million years I’d play it,” he says. “Now, even if I’m out until 2 a.m. the night before, I’ll wake up early the next morning to play. I’m totally addicted.”
Pickleball combines elements of tennis, badminton, and table tennis. Most commonly, teams of two square off against opponents on a badminton-size court with a slightly lower net, using what look like oversize ping-pong paddles and a perforated ball (similar to a Wiffle ball). The relatively light orb makes success more about skill than power, so men and women of all ages play together.
Romanus is far from the only player who’s a fanatic. Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, with more than 2.46 million participants in the United States, according to a 2015 report by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. There’s a pickleball magazine, a national pickleball association, and resorts that cater to pickleball players.
And while it may not have the cool-kid factor of other mountain sports, pickleball is being played somewhere in the Roaring Fork Valley every day of the week year-round, with dedicated courts in Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs. The City of Aspen Parks and Recreation department built four courts last summer at Iselin Field, with rental paddles and balls available at the adjacent rec center. “Initially we thought it was a sport for the aging community,” says Susan Arenella, operations manager for the department. “But we found that people of all ages are using these courts.”
Despite the sport’s funny name (allegedly in honor of one founder’s dog, Pickles) and its reputation as a low-impact activity for the older set (on par with, say, shuffleboard), people who are into it are, like, really into it.
“I’m totally obsessed,” says Bonnie Scott, 43, an avid tennis player from El Jebel who is helping lead the charge to bring more pickleball to the valley. Scott is every bit the serious jock, with the long, lean athlete’s physique and high-swinging ponytail that let you know she means business. Scott started playing with her dad, Russ, two years ago and now travels to play in tournaments, winning the women’s doubles division at one in Las Vegas this spring.
“I like to smack the crap out of the ball and know I’m not going to hurt anybody,” she says. Scott is organizing a tournament June 25–26 to raise funds for outdoor courts at Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel. It will be hosted by the Roaring Fork Pickleball Association, which has more than 150 members and counting.
As for pickleball seeming soft compared to the types of sweat-fests Aspenites hold dear, like running up the Ute Trail or biking Smuggler Mountain, perish the thought. “I’m getting smoked by these 70-year-old men, and I’m dripping in sweat,” says Romanus. “It’s a huge workout.”