In 1980, while attending a Physical Education conference in Dallas, I was introduced to pickleball. I was a physical education major at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). The P.E. conference had a pickleball court set up in the middle of the vendor exhibition area.
The game was being demonstrated to physical education teachers as a new activity for their school. After playing my first game, I was hooked! I spent three days playing pickleball in the exhibition hall. I couldn’t wait to share my excitement at home, so I purchased a pickleball set of my own.
El Paso’s First Pickleball Court
The house I was renting, just happened to have a flat driveway that was perfect for playing the fun game. Soon, my brother-in-law, friends and I were playing pickleball in the backyard. We would play singles and doubles for hours in my northeast backyard.
The makeshift pickleball court was filled with family and friends laughing, running, dinking the ball and enjoying the great game!
UTEP Students and Staff Begin To Play
In the 1980’s, the University of Texas at El Paso required that every student take two semester hours of physical education classes. Along with being a student, I taught racquetball and tennis classes on campus. Since pickleball uses the same lines as badminton, all three gymnasiums on campus had permanent badminton/pickleball lines.
I introduced my tennis and racquetball students to pickleball during each semester. The outdoor tennis classes were regularly forced indoors, because the ASARCO copper smelting emissions were blowing towards the campus. The sulfur emissions made it impossible to play tennis outdoors. We would go into the gym and play pickleball on three courts. The students loved it. The sport was beginning to grow!
UTEP Intramurals Program Adds Pickleball
In 1981, one of my regular racquetball partners, Bob Geske was the assistant director of intramurals. Bob and I played racquetball and badminton regularly in Memorial gym. After I introduced him to pickleball, Bob quickly added pickleball to the yearly intramural schedule for UTEP students.
Every semester the intramurals department held a pickleball singles and doubles tournament for the students and faculty. A pickleball champion was crowned each semester, and awarded a “UTEP Intramurals Champion” t-shirt.
Pickleball in the Schools
After graduating from UTEP, I became an elementary physical education teacher at Glen Cove Elementary School in 1984. One of my first purchases as a P.E. teacher, were 60 wooden Diller paddles for my classes. My colleagues and I painted four pickleball courts on the basketball blacktop.
We added pickleball to our yearly schedule of activities for the 3rd through 6th graders. Our young P.E. students and coaches fell in love with the game! Every Friday, the students knew that Court 4 was reserved for the coaches to play on.
During my 30 years of teaching at Glen Cove Elementary, thousands of students were introduced to the fun sport of pickleball.
Pickleball Workshops for Teachers
The Glen Cove Elementary P.E. department held several district-wide and regional workshops for other physical educators from 1985 to 2019. The game of pickleball spread to numerous El Paso area schools, from elementary to high school.
Most recently, in 2019, 120 Ysleta physical education teachers gathered for a full day pickleball workshop at a local high school. Many of our local pickleball players volunteered their time to teach drills and rules of the game.
Northeast Community Plays Pickleball
In 1991, an avid pickleball player became the principal of Whitaker elementary school. Principal Jim VanNosdale had 2 courts painted on the blacktop. We played some of the greatest, most competitive games ever played in El Paso! Our group of players spent almost every Sunday playing on the outdoor courts.
Soon after, in 1992, my daughters began swimming at Park Foothills swimming pool on Echo street, near Sunrise Park. The summer swimming hole had an old abandoned tennis court adjacent to the swimming pool. Several of the pickleball playing fathers transformed the old cracked tennis court into a newly tarred pickleball court.
The swim team parents were soon waiting for their turn to play a game of pickleball. Hundreds of swimming pool members played throughout the summer season for many years. The big pickleball event held every year was the 4th of July Pickleball Tournament. Winners took home a huge jar of dill pickles!
UTEP Kinesiology Program Adds Pickleball
As the popularity of pickleball grew in the United States, the UTEP kinesiology program added pickleball to their degree plan. Kinesiology/physical education majors learned the skills and rules required to play pickleball. It soon became a popular game for the UTEP kinesiology students.
The graduates then went on to teach the game to their students, when they later became P.E. teachers.
Senior Center Includes Pickleball
In 2012, the director of the Wellington Chew Senior Center decided to add pickleball to the offered activities. It quickly became a favorite activity along with bingo, card games, billiards and dance classes.
The single pickleball court soon grew into three courts across the street at Nolan Richardson Recreation Center. The El Paso Senior Games added pickleball the following year. In 2019, over 50 players competed in the Senior Games, in singles and doubles.
Parks and Recreation Embraces Expansion
After I retired from teaching in 2014, I asked to meet with El Paso Parks and Recreation department to see about expanding pickleball. I worked my way through the chain of command. Each person I met with gave me assurances to expand pickleball opportunities to the community.
Outside tennis courts were lined to include pickleball courts at several parks. The director agreed to paint lines at recreation centers when gym floors were resurfaced. He also agreed that pickleball courts would be included in all new recreation facilities. Portable nets, paddles and balls were ordered for each facility. The ball began to roll and gain momentum. It was exciting to see!
Meeting with a Pickleball Visionary
In 2015, I received a phone call from Carmela Morales, a local physician in town. She was interested in opening a volleyball and pickleball facility in El Paso. She wanted to meet over coffee and discuss it.
When we met, Carmela expressed her interest in opening a private gym with volleyball and pickleball courts. She wanted to have pickleball available in the morning and volleyball in the evening. She had a business plan, and a possible sight for the location of the gym.
After the meeting, Carmela wanted to learn how to play the game of pickleball. We met at Milagro Park on the outdoor courts. She brought along her brother, Marcelo Morales and Aminah Orozco to play. After the two hours of learning and playing pickleball, they were all excited about pursuing the new venture.
Five Set Net Sports is Open for Business
In the Fall of 2017, Five Set Net Sports was built and opened for business. The facility was built in Sunland Park, New Mexico, about a mile from the El Paso border. The five new pickleball courts drew players from all over the country to play. Marcelo Morales, director of pickleball, organized tournaments and pro clinics for the area. The pickleball community grew quickly with the premier facility.
COVID-19 Hits El Paso Hard
In March 2020, Covid-19 hit the nation hard, especially El Paso and Southern New Mexico. The area was under a strict lock down. Gyms were restricted from opening for months. Five Set Net Sport struggled to stay in business. In March 2021, Five Set sadly closed for business.
City Recreation Centers Open With Pickleball
The Covid-19 pandemic forced recreation centers to close throughout the area. During the closures, the city renovated multiple centers and added pickleball court lines. After almost a year of closure, they opened to pickleball play. Several newly built recreation centers opened with new pickleball facilities. Pickleball players flocked to their neighborhood rec center to play. The sport and its popularity continued to grow in El Paso.
Pickleball El Paso Club Formed
On November 8, 2021, the first meeting of the Pickleball El Paso Association was held. The club was formed to promote the sport of pickleball, and to improve the quality of life for all through recreation and social engagement, in an environment of good will and inclusivity.
Founded to organize the widely scattered community of enthusiasts, its primary mission is to obtain dedicated pickleball facilities. Most locations have 2-3 multi-use courts available for pickleball. The goal, is a site of 8 or more dedicated outdoor courts open daily for players.
The future for pickleball growth looks very promising in El Paso! We may be a little bit behind the rest of nation, but I feel pickleball will continue to grow in our community. It has certainly been a fun journey.
In the future, I believe El Paso will open up a dedicated pickleball facility that will draw hundreds of players. With the continued support of our community, there is no reason why we will not keep up with the rest of the nation.