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Famous in Finland

Riderwood players take pickleball abroad

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May 12th, 2016
Riderwood’s pickleball players

Riderwood’s pickleball players were featured on a prime time newscast in Finland.

When a group of retirees at Riderwood started playing pickleball together in 2007, they didn’t think they’d end up on television, let alone on Finnish television. But lo and behold, the unique paddle sport that combines elements of tennis and badminton caught the eye of an international broadcasting company. 

Riderwood’s active coed pickleball group was filmed earlier this year by a TV crew from Finnish Broadcasting Company (abbreviated YLE in Finland). The network was doing a series about unique sports played throughout the world. 

Pirkko Pontinen, a Washington-based YLE correspondent assigned to cover American politics, interviewed three Riderwood residents, including one who was playing pickleball for the first time.

The next night, TV viewers in Finland—4,300 miles from Riderwood in Silver Spring, Md.—viewed the Riderwood pickleball players on a prime-time newscast on YLE.

“We were glad and excited that we could inspire other seniors to play the game,” says Jack McEleney, who leads the pickleball group.

Curious beginnings

Back in 2007, a staff member at Riderwood’s fitness center asked residents if they’d be interested in learning how to play pickleball. Several people were curious about the game and came to an initial meeting to learn the rules. 

“We more or less taught ourselves the game,” Jack says. “Riderwood gave us the balls and the nets.”

Almost a decade later, the pickleball group is still going strong. About 20 active residents meet three times a week to play on an indoor court in the wellness center. 

“There are still about four of the original players,” says Jack, one of the founding members. “It’s a very friendly group. Anybody who wants to come down and play, we let them play.”

A game for everyone

Jack says pickleball is kind of like “playing table tennis if you’re standing on the table.” He says the game is a good way to practice balance and hand-eye coordination, as well as to get a little exercise.

“Some people can hit anything that comes their way, and other people can really run,” Jack says. “Everybody has their own style of playing the game.”

Pickleball is a sport that people of all ages and varying athletic abilities can enjoy. In fact, Jack says three of the people on the Riderwood league are over 90 years old.

“But you can’t go by age because some of them can really move,” Jack says. “Frances Chang is over 90, and she can hit the ball as hard as anybody.”

In getting together three times a week over the course of many years, the pickleball players have naturally come to know one another well. In fact, residents Charles and Norma Slaugh met on the pickleball court and went on to get married. 

Jack says one of the things he loves about the group is all of the different types of people it attracts. He says there are players from all over the world (including one from South America), people of many different religious backgrounds, and retirees from a range of professions, including former doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, professors, and ministers. 

“It’s a good group, and everyone is very friendly,” Jack says. “It’s such a diverse group, and people come from every area of campus, so you get all of the scuttlebutt between games.”

In addition to catching the attention of an international TV station, Riderwood’s pickleball group has also gained some local notoriety. 

In March, they were planning to meet with a nearby church group to teach them the game. 

Another Maryland retirement community has also contacted Riderwood about learning to play pickleball. 

And, a while back, the group taught people from a 55-plus community in Montgomery County.

“We went over there two years ago and played them outdoors. It was a lot of fun,” Jack says.

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