After teaching pickleball for years as a physical education coach, Ben Avalos, a retired North East resident, is thrilled to see seniors joining the pickleball craze.
Pickleball is a cross between table tennis and tennis with larger paddles and a smaller court.
Avalos, the official pickleball ambassador of the United States in El Paso, first discovered the sport in his twenties as a kinesiologist. He attended a state association conference in Dallas in 1980 to support a professor, and there was a pickleball facility in the conference room.
Pickleball, which began as a children’s backyard game in 1965, was introduced to physical education teachers from elementary through high school.
“I was like, ‘I play tennis. I play racquetball. Let me try that.’ I fell in love with it. For three days you couldn’t get me off the pitch,” he said.
These days, Avalos, 60, happily welcomes El Pasoans or traveling visitors who stop by the Veterans Recreation Center at 5301 Salem Drive on Tuesdays and Thursdays to check out or play the game. He has played regularly, including teaching it at Glencove Elementary, building a lot in his driveway and teaching neighbors, and now hanging out at recreation centers.
Most players are retired educators or still-working businessmen looking for something other than playing cards or Wii Sports.
Some, like Ruben Peña, discover the sport while out of town visiting relatives in towns where they have pickleball centers. Cities like Tucson, Arizona, and Austin, as well as retirement communities all over Florida, have pickleball courts.
Peña, who has been playing for more than a year, said he picked it up after visiting his daughter and grandchildren in San Antonio.
“My grandsons came with us and I really enjoyed playing there. When I came back to El Paso, I said, ‘I have to find a place to play,'” he said.
Seniors said they like the social aspect of the game and that it can be played by all ages. People are generally not competitive and are good sportsmen.
“It’s a great activity for kids to learn hand-eye coordination and kind of an introduction to tennis,” Avalos said. “It’s easier than tennis because in tennis you have this long racquet. And their little wrists aren’t very good at holding stuff. So that paddle is easy.”
Matches are short, played in sets of four and often last 10-15 minutes, so people place their paddles near the net to indicate they want to play next.
“With pickleball, people put their paddles down and everyone starts to mingle, so you get to know everyone,” Avalos said.
Avalos’ wife Terry used to play pickleball with her husband and is now able to play, although she uses a wheelchair due to a fall.
“Even though I don’t have a sports wheelchair, we came here and I strapped in and gave it a try,” she said. “Not very well, at first. But I had to release that pride inside of me and say, ‘You know what, it’s going to be a learning curve and I’ll get it if I keep coming. “
“Every Tuesday and Thursday I come here because I can be with my friends and talk and joke with people,” she said. “It’s such a social thing, plus we train and get our hearts going.”
Avalos said he spoke to the city’s parks and recreation department around 2014 about having pickleball courts and schedules. The department was responsive, painting pickleball courts on some tennis courts. Some centers also have dedicated pickleball slots and nets.
Now that the sport is covered on national television, he would like to see the sport become even more popular in El Paso with people of all ages.
He runs a website, PickleballElPaso.com, where people can find where to play pickleball in the city and sign up. There are about 10 centers where pickleball is played. He said the Nolan Richardson Recreation Center, 4435 Maxwell Ave., will have pickleball courts as part of its renovation.
And Avalos is offering a free lesson to people who join the Pickleball El Paso Association for $15.
Lisa Young, 65, is delighted to play, especially now that the courts are more easily accessible. She has been playing regularly for about a year.
“I was hooked right away because I’m not athletic, but it was fun. It was indoors. I played tennis, very little with my son, but it was horrible. And it was a bit like tennis ‒ the court is smaller, the racquets are lighter, the balls are lighter. People our age really appreciate that. It’s so much fun.”
María Cortés González, who thinks she might choose pickleball well, can be reached at 915-546-6150; [email protected]; @EPTMaria on Twitter.