On a 40-degree Tuesday afternoon, the day before the start of winter, Seaside Park was packed with more than a dozen Marbleheaders who were out doing an activity they love.
They weren’t sledding, they weren’t building snowmen, they were playing pickleball. Outside. In December.
That’s right, the week before Christmas, all four courts specifically designated for pickleball at Seaside Park were being used to play the fastest growing sport in America.
The sport is not only growing at a rapid pace across the country, but it has taken a hold of the town of Marblehead and its residents, including Joe McKane and Lisa Spinale, who have helped establish and grow Marblehead Pickleball.
McKane got into the sport nearly five years ago after watching a friend, Bryce Suydam play at the Council on Aging, and saw a tremendous opportunity to grow the sport in town, and has been hooked ever since.
“Once it gets a hold of you, we [he and Spinale] both have the habit, we want to play everyday,” said McKane.
Pickleball uses components of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong. The objective of the game is to hit a perforated hollow ball over a 3-foot-tall net with a solid paddle. It can be played in duo or single matches.
In 2018, a group of pickleball players who played at Collins Grove in Salem pitched an idea to Marblehead Parks and Recreation of using the courts at Seaside for pickleball. Initially, the department turned down that request, but in 2019, it was decided that two of the three tennis courts at Veterans Middle School would be turned into six pickleball courts.
The courts were designed by Buck Grader and contractors were brought in to tackle the project that ended up totalling nearly $58,000. Parks and Recreation gave $12,500 towards the efforts and the rest was left to McKane and the other organizers to raise money for the courts. Soon after the approval, a bank account was opened and a website, marbleheadpickleball.org, was started with the effort led by Suydam.
Four years later, Marblehead Pickleball has raised $65,000 and the town is now home to 10 dedicated pickleball courts, the most in any town on the North Shore. The sport has become so popular in town that those who wish to play on any of the ten courts have to reserve a spot to play through an app, and oftentimes the courts are fully booked. The organization currently has a newsletter that is sent out to over 300 people, and that number is growing everyday.
Marblehead resident Jeff Starfield was one of the diehard pickleballers that made it out to Seaside on Tuesday, and said that the best part is how the game ties together the social and athletic aspects.
“This is a wonderful social as well as athletic activity, so it’s fun to be out here playing with people,” he said. “The games don’t last very long so you mix up and you play with a number of different people so you can match all ages and levels.”
When asked about why she plays in the cold, Martha Gurman said, “Why not? It sharpens your senses and reminds us all of how much we enjoy being together, sharing our triumphs, and laughing out loud. Pickleball is good for the soul and should be played all year round.”
When it comes to playing through the winter, Marbleheaders love the game so much that they will meet up for matches on any decent day. One Marbleheader who plays through the winter, Rich Newburg said he does so because he got bit by the bug, and wants to play any chance he gets.
“It’s super social and inclusive and can also be very competitive,” he said. “I play outside in the winter because I’m a bit obsessed and will take any opportunity to have some fun and get some fresh air.”
Spinale and McKane said that it is a sport that can be played anytime, anywhere.
“It’s a year-round sport, we can play outside as long as the courts are playable and dry,” said Spinale. “You put earmuffs on and a down coat and you’re outside, as well as you could be skiing, you could be playing pickleball.”
“If it’s 30 degrees and above and it’s not blowing 800 miles an hour, we can play,” McKane added.
Even 24 degrees was satisfactory for players that showed up for a pickleball brunch on Sunday, Dec. 11. 18 people came out that morning to brave the cold and play while also enjoying some food and drink.
Much like golf, pickleball is a sport that can be picked up and played at any age and involves people of all skill levels. Spinale says that she has seen people on the courts from two years of age all the way up to 90 years of age, and that’s what makes it so special.
With the amount of interest that the sport has garnered in town recently, McKane and Spinale said that the group is looking to host tournaments in the spring of 2023 and have even thought about the possibility of adding more courts, though they would need more funding to aid that process.
Those who wish to donate to the organization can do so by writing a check to Marblehead Pickleball or visiting Marbleheadpickleball.org.
Whether it’s 75 and sunny or just a few degrees above freezing, pickleball in Marblehead is not only here to stay, but it is here to take over, and welcomes anyone in town who is looking to pick up a new hobby.