‘It saved us’: Unlikely sport keeps Rhode Islanders active during pandemic

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — It’s no secret that COVID-19 has changed how we go about our day-to-day lives.

In search of an outlet, one group of Rhode Islanders found a unique way to relieve stress while also staying in shape.

It’s called pickleball, and it’s skyrocketed in popularity since the start of the pandemic.

“It’s competitive, it’s fun and it’s social,” Susan Lemay said. “It gave us something to do during COVID.”

Pickleball is a combination of tennis, ping pong and badminton. It can be played in singles or pairs, and the court can be located either indoors or outdoors.

Scott Sevegny, program coordinator for Cranston Parks and Recreation, said it’s an easy game to learn.

“It’s played with a plastic ball and paddle, as opposed to tennis which has a racquet and a softer ball,” Sevegny explained. “You serve over the net, then you move close to a certain line, which is the area you’re not supposed to go into … it’s called the kitchen.”

“You start with serving from the back and then move in closer, and it becomes a fast-paced game once you get to the net,” he continued.

Pickleball is much more than a pandemic-fueled fad, however. The USA Pickleball Association estimates there are 5,000 players nationwide.

Elaine Townsend is one of them.

“It saved us,” the Cranston resident said. “Pickleball saved us, it really did, from being isolated. I know some people are still feeling that, but we were fortunate to be able to be out seeing our friends … we were able to get over it more easily than other people who didn’t have activities to deal with.”

Joseph Turgeon described Townsend as a talented pickleball player who knows what’s she’s doing.

“She’s known as the hooker because she has a hook shot that gets by everybody, even me,” Turgeon said. “Even though I’m fully aware it’s coming, it gets by me.”

Dennis Bove told 12 News he plays three times a week. 

“I first found out about it when I ran into a friend of mine,” Bove recalled. “He told me her husband was playing pickleball. I said, ‘what’s pickleball?’ I had to look into it. Anybody you talk to, they try it and can’t get enough of it.”

Sevegny said Cranston Parks and Recreation was able to offer more pickleball games throughout the pandemic because youth sports programs were put on hold, adding that they followed pandemic protocols for each and every match.

Pickleball matches are held regularly at the Pastore Youth Center on Gansett Avenue, and you don’t have to be a Cranston resident to participate. It costs $3 per session to play.

Anyone who isn’t from Cranston but wants to play pickleball a little closer to home can search for a club by clicking here.