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Between local champions and an upcoming state tournament, pickleball putting Salisbury on map

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — On any given day, the continuous clanks of yellow plastic balls against wooden paddles echoes across City Park.

That sound signifies locals of all ages and skillsets enjoying the growing sport of pickleball.

Founded in 1965 near Seattle, pickleball is a mix of tennis, ping pong and racquetball. It’s a game with simple rules and can be played by just about anyone willing to pick up the paddle. In addition to nationwide growth, the sport is putting Salisbury on the map. Hundreds of pickleball players will visit the city in September for a state tournament. And over the last few years, players as young as 14 and as old as 81 have been nationally recognized for their excellence in the sport.

After less than a year of competitive play, local player Brian Hickman, 14, has become a decorated player who’s on his way to the 2021 Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championship in Indian Wells, California, in December. To qualify, Hickman won gold in men’s doubles and men’s singles in the 19 and older age group at the 2021 USA Pickleball North Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship in Cranberry, Pennsylvania, earlier this month.

“The fact that he qualified for nationals in not one but two events, and for him to be in the 19+ men’s age category — that’s the part that I think is most incredible,” said Hickman’s mother, Amanda Przybyszewski. “This little, short kid goes up against grown men in the events he plays in all the time.”

Hickman also placed in the USA Pickleball National Indoor Championship, the Professional Pickleball Association’s Atlanta Georgia Open, the National Pickleball Paseo Classic and the 2020 Powerade State Games, among others. Hickman already has six other tournaments lined up for 2021 before December’s national event.

In pickleball, skillset levels range from Nos. 1 to 5.5, with those exceeding that range considered top-caliber players by the USA Pickleball Association. Hickman is at level No. 3.5.

He played the game throughout his childhood after his grandparents, Cynthia and Ernie Fullerton of Cornelius, began playing about nine years ago. Przybyszewski said her son “had to do something” after the pandemic cancelled sporting events. But a jamboree in Black Mountain in October is what kickstarted Hickman to begin playing competitively.

“School sports in general can be somewhat cutthroat,” Przybyszewski said. “You sometimes see a lot more competitiveness and maybe a less positive side of sportsmanship. In this sport, I’ve never run into any jerks really. Everybody’s just really nice, and that’s probably our favorite part. And also, you need 10 people to play a pickup basketball game. You need 18 people to play a pickup softball or baseball game. It only takes four people to be able to get on the court and have competitive gameplay (with pickleball).”

Hickman’s ultimate goal is to reach the No. 5 skill level by the age of 16. Przybyszewski says it’s a realistic goal because several other teens of the same age have reached it. In the next few years, Hickman hopes to see the sport expand among young people in local schools and in the Olympics. Hickman is transitioning to South Rowan High School in the upcoming school year and plans to help get the sport started there.

“We’re not quite Florida or Texas or California, which have huge pickleball demographics, but there’s a lot of local teams like him who travel and go to bigger sanctioned tournaments,” Przybyszewski said. “I love that Salisbury is so supportive.”

Hickman said he likes that pickleball has a more positive atmosphere and people can be their own coach. In addition to drills and practice throughout the week, Hickman also practices at home by hitting the ball against the side of his home.

Pickleball also has become popular among older adults because it produces less strain on the body compared to other sports and involves an easy learning curve. Local player Jon Post has become a nationally recognized champion and organized several tournaments, including one to be held in Salisbury in September.

Post, 63, played tennis competitively throughout high school and college. Injuries experienced since then have made the sport more difficult. Nonetheless, Post yearned for a way to continue “keeping score” as an athlete. He and brother David Post contributed to a donation that made the formation of six pickleball courts at City Park possible.

“If you look around this place,” Jon Post said referring to the pickleball courts, “what would all these people have been doing today? They wouldn’t be out here getting exercise. They would be doing something probably more sedentary.”

Maryhelen Atkins, 52, is another local athlete who has made it to the pickleball pros. Like Jon Post, she appreciates the sport allowing her to continue being an active athlete while making new friends along the way.

“I would say most everybody I know that played tennis was reluctant to play pickleball because of the name or they didn’t know what it was all about,” Atkins said. “But once they get out here, I think everybody we’ve introduced it to is pretty much addicted to it now.”

The name, by the way, comes from founder Joel Pritchard, who had a dog named “Pickles” known for taking off with the ball when the game was being played.

Jon Post has won a national’s singles title and played in the national tournament at least four times. He’s played in the U.S. Pickleball Open at least three times. Atkins ranks within the top 10 pickleball players in the world at the senior women’s professional level. She plays in pro-level tournaments with cash prizes across the nation.

Pickleball has also become a game that professional athletes of other sports enjoy. Atkins recalls a restaurant called “Chicken N Pickle” in Kansas City, Missouri, where her wife, Jodie, used to work. The restaurant features several pickleball courts where Kansas City Chief Patrick Mahomes sometimes plays.

Jon Post and Atkins say another benefit of the game is the ability for senior and disabled adults to get on the court and forget about any ailments they may have. Atkins said she’s witnessed players as young as 4 and as old as 93 play the game in national tournaments. Additionally, she’s seen players in wheelchairs and those suffering from Parkinson’s disease play well. Her 81-year-old father continues to play in the U.S. Pickleball Open.

“I’ve played just about every sport there is, and I think this is the greatest sport because anybody can play it,” Atkins said. “Any age can play it. If you’re in a wheelchair, you have physical limitations but can still play it well. I don’t think there’s any other sport that brings you together like pickleball.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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