Written by Joy Choquette
Do you love a good game of ping pong? Are you secretly excited when your son or granddaughter challenges you to a match of badminton? Do you get a kick out of tennis? If you answered, “yes” to any of these questions than you’ll want to try a sport sweeping the courts in North Hero.

Pickleball is a paddle sport that combines many traits of the above games into one. Easier on one’s body than tennis, the game requires good hand-eye coordination, quickness and agility…and a good sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. Pickleball is easy to learn and provides players with great benefits.

Just ask Tim O’Reilly, who heads up the pickleball league in North Hero. Tim, who learned the sport while taking a few lessons in Florida over the winter of 2015, says that he was immediately hooked. When he and his wife returned to Vermont the following spring, he contacted the North Hero Recreation Department to inquire how it might start a league. The small pickleball program started in July of 2016. In the fall of 2017, the recreation department was awarded a grant by RiseVT. Part of the monies were allocated for the pickleball program.

The group has developed substantially since then. “We’ve grown from playing two mornings a week to now six mornings a week,” Tim said. “We average 15 players a session and maintain an email addressee list of over 100 players.”

Additionally, the Islands Pickleball Association (IPA) was established this past winter. This allows the group to partner with the recreation programs in the Champlain Islands. Incorporated as a nonprofit, the organization is, “working to raise funds to expand and improve pickleball courts in the Islands,” Tim said. The IPA put on a two-day pickleball tournament at the Collins-Perley Sports Complex in St. Albans in mid-August with great success.

Seniors are the major demographic of the game Tim said, and the benefits are multi-faceted: exercise and socialization being two of the biggest perks. “Pickleball gets us seniors off the couch and moving around for a couple of hours a session. Those players that wear Fitbits will often get 8,000 steps within their two-hour pickleball time,” Tim said. He notes that the socialization aspect is just as important. “The frequent play creates a camaraderie, which is hard to find any other activity,” says Tim. “As we age, relationships and connections to others are important elements to a healthy lifestyle.”

Socialization is one of the key benefits to another sport practiced regularly in the Islands: bocce ball. Maureen Danielczyk, of Grand Isle, says that she and her husband got their start in bocce ball in the Burlington area. From there, “We decided we could build a court in our yard,” said Maureen. “We did that for 12 years. Then last year, we helped build a court at the rec park.”

Bocce, played on a grassy court, is quite similar to bowling. In fact, the word, “bocce” is Italian for bowling. A marker is placed on the court and then balls are thrown or tossed toward the marker. Whichever team gets his or her ball closest to the marker garners points for that round. “It’s competitive but incredibly friendly and players are happy to see each other.”

Maureen said that the help from RiseVT was integral to the game’s ongoing success. “The equipment from RiseVT was so helpful,” said Maureen. “It really made a difference.”

Between 45 and 50 players utilize the bocce court and having an on-site storage unit with a combination lock means that anyone can play whenever the park is open. What is the typical age of a player? “It’s a pretty good mix,” said Maureen. “I would say about two-thirds are older people. We’ve tried really hard to make sure that we get some younger people in there, too.” The area was recently made handicap accessible as well, which was a great improvement.

The response from the community has been very positive. “People are really supportive and excited,” Maureen said. “We still have people emailing even though there’s a full list.” Which is good, as subs are often needed during players’ vacation times. “Our season goes from June until mid-September,” Maureen noted, “but people do play into the fall or whenever there’s no snow on the court.”

Though the Grand Isle bocce ball club started 12 years ago, another court has since sprouted up in South Hero. Maureen estimates that another 40 to 50 people play there. There is a plan to eventually organize a tournament, but it hasn’t happened yet. “Sometimes they sub for us or just come and hang out,” Maureen says. “It’s all very friendly.” Maureen stated that the benefits of the simple game are important: “Being social, meeting new people and the skill of playing bocce; it’s not a hard game to learn but you see people get better,” which she said, brings great satisfaction.