The Influencers: Q&A with Jennifer Lucore, “First Lady of Pickleball”
This is one in an occasional series on people who’ve turned passions into the passion projects of their lives. How did they do it? What keeps them energized? Let’s find out!
Jennifer Lucore is a 17-time USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) champion, a popular pickleball blogger, and, according to Pickleball News, the “first lady” of her sport. And she’s nowhere near done adding to her resume.
History of Pickleball: More Than 50 Years of Fun! is a new, definitive account of the origins and rise of the break-out paddle sport that was co-written by Lucore and her mother, Beverly Youngren, one of the USAPA’s pioneering volunteer ambassadors of the game.
Because GroupWorks helps support numerous pickleball clubs — and players! — we knew we had to get the inside scoop on this history-making history book. As Lucore prepped for the 2018 USAPA National Championships, being held Nov. 3-11 in Indian Wells, Calif., we spoke with her about the project — and her passion for pickleball.
While it’s generally known that pickleball was invented by three friends — Barney McCallum, Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell — during a summer vacation in 1965 on Washington state’s Bainbridge Island, the story of how the game grew from a backyard diversion into a worldwide phenomenon still feels like a mystery. Why is that?
The game took a while to start going. So, yes, in the beginning, there’s three guys and their families. They have a place on Bainbridge Island, and one day the kids are bored, and the guys said we need to figure out something to do. So, they come up with this game on an old asphalt badminton court. Everybody has tons of fun, and over the next few weekends, they play around with some rules.
Back then people only stayed on Bainbridge during the summer. So, the [McCallums, Pritchards and Bells] leave, and go back to their homes. But the game carries on in the streets and on the cul-de-sacs where [the founding families] are living. Later, they start tweaking the rules, and locals join in on the fun.
The game slowly made its way [around the country] with the “snowbirds.” [These retirees] played it, they loved it, and then they’d go back to their homes or their vacation places, and they needed pickleball there, too, so they made it grow.
No one ever thought, “Oh, this is going to be something, so we should take pictures.” The [founders] were 39, 40 and 42 years old. It’s not like they were looking to start a business. They all had their own successful careers. [Joel Pritchard, for one, was a member of Washington’s statehouse before eventually winning election to the U.S. Congress.] This thing just happened.
Today, a pickleball paddle made of graphite can cost a player north of $100. What were the first pickleball paddles like?
In the beginning, [the founders] were trying to see what would work. They had a variety of rackets and paddles in the shed; they were just playing around with different ones — and balls. They had a wiffle ball, a tennis ball. The first pickleball paddles [made specifically for the game] were cut from a thin sheet of plywood. They were pretty heavy, and very crude, and the grips were not sanded down; there were, in fact, no grips on it.
Tell us about the six-hour road trip that sparked the book.
In 2015, we went to Lake Tahoe for the first retreat [for USAPA ambassadors, volunteers who are dedicated to helping grow the sport]. We are having a group lunch and realize that the new ambassadors do not know the history of the game and are sitting by pioneers who made this sport grow. And, truly, how are they supposed to know?
So, we’re driving home [from Lake Tahoe to the San Diego area, where Lucore lives], and I’m thinking, no one knows these stories. We’ve got to capture the memories and experiences of those that made this sport grow because, let’s face it, no one is getting any younger. We don’t know how to write a book, but we’ll figure it out — because we are passionate about this sport.
What’s it like writing a book with your mother?
It’s challenging — and awesome — all at the same time. [Laughs.]
Let’s talk about your history with pickleball.
My parents have been into pickleball since 2000. My brother and I would hear my parents talk about, “Oh, we’re going to a pickleball tournament,” and we’d just kind of laugh. And then [in 2009], I went to see my parents compete at the first [USAPA] nationals. And then the next year, I was like, I’m going to give it a shot.
I played tennis once a week at the local country club, and I told my doubles partner, Alex Hamner, we’ve got to play pickleball, and we’ve got to go to this tournament called nationals. Because I had that tennis background, I was instantly near the top level of the game, and quickly I was winning.
Around 2011, I became a sponsored player of Pickleball Inc. [established by the game’s founders in 1972], which Barney McCallum’s family owned. Through that I got to meet Barney [still going strong today, in his 90s]. That friendship enabled me to learn a lot about the history and insight into the early days of the sport.
What’s the magic of pickleball?
It’s very “open arms” when you come to try it. You don’t have to have the fancy tennis outfit, or the country-club fee. You show up and play, and people show you how to do it. It’s very social. You’re switching around with people a lot because the games go quicker [than tennis], and you’re physically much closer to your opponent and your partner. There’s a lot of chitchat. And the health benefits: It gets people off the couch, out of the house because they’re looking forward to playing with their group. They get their fix.
And now the million-dollar question: Why is the game called pickleball?
There are a few different theories, and people are passionate about what happened. The majority of the people who were there [in the beginning] say there was a was a dog named Pickles, and when they were playing the game, Pickles would chase the ball, so it was, like, “Pickles’ ball,” or, “Pickles, get the ball!”
And then one day, Barney McCallum and all the inventors were having a cocktail, and they were saying, we need to name this [sport], and Pickles ran by, and someone said, “Hey, how about pickleball?” And they instantly thought: That’s perfect.