HARWICH ─ When part-time Harwich resident Denise McClung won a pickleball tournament this fall, it wasn't the win that made the event such fun. It was the women from the local pickleball group that elevated the day from special to sublime.
“It's the people,” said McClung, who divides her time between Harwich and West Virginia. “I love sports and I love to be competitive, but the bigger drive for me is the people and who you get to meet and who you get to know, and how you get friendships built.”
Similar to tennis, but played on a smaller court and with slightly different rackets and balls, pickleball is perhaps the fastest growing sport in the nation. In Harwich it's played in good weather at Brooks Park where there are several courts, and in winter at the old Harwich Middle School and at the Harwich Community Center.
It was through these channels that an intrepid group of pickleball women learned of a tournament for women only in Malden, with several – McClung, Chris Walkley, Anne Briggs and Kym Wilkinson – opting to compete, which motivated Evelyn Tobey, Carol Coleman, Sandra Fruean and Dorothy Hurford to travel up as cheerleaders.
Initially, McClung wasn't going to go, but once she learned that fellow players would be venturing off-Cape to cheer her on, she was sold.
“It was like a woman's day,” she said. “I looked forward to going with the group. To look during every match and see our cheerleader supporters, everywhere, that again was the fuel for all of us players to say, 'That is what we're here for.'”
Walkley was also on the fence before deciding to play and ended up serving an 11-0 game, much to the delight of her compatriots.
“I was a little worried about the competition, but when I got there it wasn't much different than playing here,” said Walkley. “We all knew we were playing to win something, but it was fun.”
In fact, seeing their friends engaged in friendly competition has sparked a desire in some of those who didn't play to try their hand in a tournament the group is setting up for this coming June.
“After watching our friends participate and the camaraderie between players, we all said, 'Don't you kind of wish you had played?” said Fruean. “If I knew it was going to be like [that], I would have.”
The game itself is also a draw, particularly the inherent sportsmanship.
“It's like no other sport I've ever played,” said Fruean.
“It's considered absolutely top notch to tell your opponent 'great shot,'” said Tobey. “I'm not so sure in football you'd hear people say something like 'great pass.'”
Pickleball is also a fun and fairly easy game to learn, especially given the helpful nature of so many of its players.
“It's really kind of fascinating how it all interplays with this bonding piece,” said Fruean. “Everybody's willing to share information, they're willing to teach you, they're even willing to share their paddles and step away so you get an opportunity to learn it. I think that part of it is a very inclusive and welcoming piece of pickleball. No one ever feels excluded in pickleball.”
“The best of players can make a poor shot, and the best of players can make a really good shot, and I think it levels the play enough so it brings out the best in everyone,” added Walkley. “Everybody has a chance.”
Wilkinson, who also competed in Malden, makes the trip from Provincetown to play with the group in Harwich.
“It's definitely worth it,” she said. “I love meeting everyone that I play with. People are so welcoming. I just showed up at the court one day and people just said, 'welcome.'”
She joined the Malden tourney because it was specifically for women only, versus the regular games, and many competitions, that are co-ed.
“I got this email and thought 'This is exciting! It's so great!'” Wilkinson said. “I didn't know that everyone else was going, so it was great when I got there and saw the people from Harwich.”
“When Kym played her first match, which was a very close match, the women came right over and said, 'I think that was the best match,'” said Fruean. “There is such respect for each other and great sportsmanship. The sportsmanship is outstanding.”
Briggs appreciated the opportunity to take on new opponents as a means of improving her game play.
“I think playing any new player is going to help your game,” she said. “Playing in a competitive environment, I learned new skills.”
Then there was McClung, who had no idea she'd won so big.
“I knew I was in the medals grouping, but as I walked back by the officials, (tournament director) Peter Sullivan said, 'I think I have something for you,'” McClung said. “I thought he was giving me something to bring back to (local pickleball coordinator) Frank Crowley.”
Instead, McClung was handed a first-place trophy.
“Her jaw dropped so deep I thought she was going to turn herself inside out,” said Tobey. “And I have the video.”
Each of the women agree that while playing with “the guys,” as they do regularly, is wonderful, having the chance to shine as women is memorable.
“This whole cheerleader thing was borne of connection,” said Hurford. “For women there's such a difference in bonding with women.”
“It's a big thing for this generation of women, that inter-competition,” said Fruean. “And the sportsmanship and camaraderie. I've played tennis for years. It's a different level of thinking and competition. But here, you only compete with yourself and everybody's here to support you. Talk about bonding.”
Now the group is setting their sights on that June tournament, another eagerly anticipated women's only event.
“I like it,” said McClung, “Because the women get to shine.”