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Pickleball in Paradise: How Expats in Costa Rica Are Embracing the Fastest Growing Sport

For a couple years before beginning our expat life in the hills above the Costa Ballena, Lisa and I read about the clamor for new pickleball courts in our old hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I remember thinking how cute it was that old-timers were organizing to march on city hall to demand something I imagined was akin to shuffleboard and curling.

Then we met our expat neighbors Charlie and Marcel, the pickleball pros of Punta Hermosa.  Charlie is 94 and Marcel is 80, a generation older than Lisa and me, and they kick out butts every morning at 7:00 am sharp.

Charlie is the undisputed maestro and a Costa Rican expat of 23 years.  His last stateside address was Washington State, where pickleball was born on Bainbridge Island in 1965.  There’s a myth the game was named after the family dog of Joann and Joel Pritchard, inventors of the game with their neighbor Bill Bell,  but the reverse is true, Pickle the dog wasn’t born until 1968. 

Joann is credited with the name, which she took from her days as a fan of crew boat racing, “Pickle boats” were second string rowers who paddled around in cast-off equipment after varsity races were concluded.  And since pickleball was born of thrown together badminton and ping pong paddles to entertain bored Bainbridge kids, the name stuck.

Charlie was so smitten with the game, as the sport grew and expanded from Seattle, he built his own court.  As a retired United State Army colonel and former inspector general for the Corps of Engineers, he’s a pretty precise guy.  When he built his home in 2015, 550 meters above the coast overlooking Ojochal, he designed a detached garage with a concrete drive pad to the exact specifications of a regulation pickleball court.

Our morning routine begins with dragging the trampoline off the court that is there for Yadir and Ana’s two young kids.  They live in an apartment above the garage.  Yadir takes care of the property and drives Charlie and Shirley, his 87 year-old wife, to shopping and doctors appointments.  Ana helps Shirley with household chores. 

Charlie and Shirley decided long ago that employing the family was far better than heading back to assisted living somewhere in the states.  They are grandpa and grandma to the kids. 

After the trampoline is gone we set the netting that keeps the ball from rolling down the mountain and then set the poles for the net dividing the court. Then play begins.  It’s competitive, exciting and frustrating.  It’s not a difficult game, and it seems as if it ought to be easy to keep a volley going, but our skills are still developing.

Charlie’s skills are already well-developed.  He has an uncanny ability to serve into a corner impossible to return or blip a soft shot into a spot you just left.  But we’re getting better!

Marcel’s great contribution is Breeze, his chocolate Labrador Retriever.  He patiently watches the game for an errant shot flying out of the court and chases down the ball, often tracking by scent as it rolls out of sight. He brings the dog-slimed perforated ball back for a treat and a handy rag gets the ball ready for play.

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America with nearly 10,000 courts.  The USA Pickleball Association claims 52,000 members and 36 million active players.  As more expats discover Costa Rica, they’re bringing the love of the game with them.  There’s even a USAPA chapter around San Jose that promotes tours, tournaments and pickleball camps. 

A new court complex is currently underway in Ojochal, our nearest town, but as long as we can walk down to Charlie’s every morning we’ll continue enjoying our time with the neighborhood pros.

Article written by Kim Shanahan

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