Pickleball players seek to climb the ladder as competitive sport finds its footing

Three PoCoMo members won medals at a professional pickleball tournament in Seattle
A pickleball match on “ladies ladder night” at Bramble Park on Aug. 8. Photos by Josh Kozelj

Ryan Fenrick, nestled beside a chain link fence, holds a stack of papers. Dozens of women form a circle around him, awaiting the results. 

Dark clouds roll over the mountains in the distance. A series of light fixtures flicker to life — radiating an orange hue overtop the 64 players dressed in bright athletic wear at Bramble Park on a Tuesday evening.

The gathering of people at the Coquitlam pickleball court is not an unfamiliar sight. 

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Since launching in 2021, the PoCoMo Pickleball club has amassed hundreds of members and advocated for more court space in the Tri-Cities. 

But earlier this summer, in a move that mirrors a wider trend in the sport, PoCoMo added “ladder” nights to their weekly schedule — competitive matches that require teams to move up or down a set of courts, depending on whether they won or lost a match. 

Every Tuesday, the club alternates between having a competitive ladder night for women and men. 

After each match, players fill out the results on a piece of paper beside the net. Fenrick then instructs each team to head to their respective court for their next match. 

“Over the years that the club has been in place, the quality of play has gone through the roof,” said Fenrick, who started playing pickleball in 2018 and has been with PoCoMo since its inception. 

In the Tri-Cities, specifically, Fenrick said that the installation of eight pickleball-specific courts at Bramble Park has increased the skill level for all local pickleballers. 

The ladder nights are satisfying the demand for more competitive play, and growing the club to new heights. 

“There’s excellent young players that are coming out and starting to develop, and the players that have been playing for a long time have also improved tremendously,” he said. 

Pickleball as a competitive sport

Pickleball is one of the fastest growing sports in Canada. 

Since exploding in popularity during the pandemic, pickleball has long been associated with older adults. That trend has been made popular on social media apps, such as TikTok, where seniors have been caught enjoying a game of pickleball. 

But Julie McRitchie, president of PoCoMo Pickleball, said the sport is attracting a younger group of people who are making pickleball more competitive. 

“For our club, our membership is growing and our players are getting younger and younger,” said McRitchie, who added that PoCoMo now has over 630 members, a jump from the roughly 400 people who were registered in May.

“The sport is becoming more and more competitive.” 

The movement to make pickleball a more competitive game has been driven in the U.S., McRitchie said, where there is a designed professional pickleball league: The Professional Pickleball Association (PPA), also known as the Pro Tour of Pickleball.

A trio of PoCoMo members competed in a PPA tournament in Seattle last month. 

A pair of those members, Jeffrey Ho and Gary Ho, won a gold medal in the men’s 5.0 division — a self-rating guide that is just short of being classified as a professional pickleball player. 

Mitra Chirkootsingh, another PoCoMo member, took home a bronze medal in his skill category. 

“Pickleball has athletes,” McRitchie said. “It’s not just a recreational sport. . . . People don’t know it’s a much bigger sport than just a kid and their mom hitting a paddle from Walmart.” 

Bringing a tour to the Lower Mainland

Despite the number of people taking an interest in competitive pickleball, the sport has still been plagued by a lack of court space. 

A group of tennis players on Mayne Island launched a petition to the BC Supreme Court in July to prevent pickleball players from accessing local tennis courts. The judge dismissed the petition, however, the rift between tennis and pickleball players has been an ongoing feud on the island for years. 

Locally, Fenrick said he has never heard about any complaints — from the tennis community or neighbours — about pickleball at Bramble Park. 

Unlike other cities in Canada that have converted old tennis courts next to a neighbourhood of houses to a pickleball facility, Fenrick said Bramble Park is isolated from many homes and surrounded by other amenities like a playground and basketball court. 

He said he expects the demand for pickleball will continue to grow in the Tri-Cities, especially as more people pick up the sport to play competitive matches. 

“[Bramble] is really the only dedicated facility in Coquitlam,” he said. “The courts are tough to get a hold of on any good, sunny day from the spring through the summer.”  

McRitchie added that municipalities should follow guidelines — sound as sound testing — to avoid upsetting neighbours when installing pickleball courts. 

She also said she hopes leagues like the PPA and the recently launched Canadian National Pickleball league, will normalize the perception of pickleball and usher in local tournaments and new courts across the Tri-Cities.

“It’s not just an old people, community centre sport,” McRitchie said. “The athleticism is unbelievable.”

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