IT WAS A BLUEBIRD-SKY SUNDAY MORNING in Buena Vista as I squinted against the intense sun, following the outstretched arm of Stephanie McDonald, the USA Pickleball district ambassador for southern Colorado. Her gesture encompassed the center of the newly poured pickleball courts, as she described where eventually there will be bleachers for fans to observe the matches on any of the six fenced courts. By the end of September, the Peak to Peak Pickleball Club will take to the newly surfaced and painted courts to bond, socialize, and enjoy a low-impact outdoor activity that is enjoyed by all ages and skill levels. The club’s membership ranges from the age of 10 to members over 80 and players from beginner to advanced.
Pickleball is a combination of tennis, badminton and table tennis. The only real relation to badminton is the court size, which is smaller, making for good physical activity, but is a lot less strenuous than tennis. Because of this, as well as the “open play” concept which mixes and matches players. Players of all ages and abilities can just show up to play, even without a partner. McDonald described it as “inter-generational,” where at national tournaments she often sees a teen playing with their grandma or grandpa. She noted, “The top female player in the world right now is a 15-year old who plays with her mom.”
McDonald described pickleball as “table tennis but you’re standing on the table.” The game is played with a plastic wiffle ball and a paddle, costing players between $50 and $125. “It’s such a social sport, partly because the court is smaller so you are interacting with the people you are playing with … we’re almost a family.” The ease of access as well as the low physical demands of the game mean many retired pro athletes play pickleball for a low impact workout. McDonald herself was a high school athlete and an intramural athlete in college who hadn’t played competitively for decades. After her first game, she was instantly hooked. “The competitive juices got reawakened, and I thought, ‘Whooo, this is fun.’”
For the last five years, McDonald and her members have shared the local tennis courts, even painting light blue pickleball-specific lines adjacent to the tennis court lines to encourage interest and engagement in the wildly popular sport. Over the years, members of the Peak to Peak Pickleball Club have introduced the sport of pickleball to local middle and high school students, the Boys and Girls Clubs members, Chaffee County Mentors, Crest Academy students, StarPoint residents, Camp Friday participants, and Salida Rotary Club members, as well as hundreds of individuals in the county. “It’s a very addictive sport,” pointed out McDonald. “Some of us come morning and night to play.”
And so, the club yearned for a dedicated pickleball court. After applying for and being denied a GOCO grant for three years in a row, McDonald and her board had to get creative. McDonald explained, “We had raised some money with the intention of matching GOCO funds, so we hired a professional grant writer with that money.” She said this was “huge” because the town of Buena Vista doesn’t have a grant writer on staff. “We were competing with larger cities that do. … The writers know the tricks and what the grant committees are looking for.” So, they decided to start applying for lots of smaller grants and received several around the $10,000-50,000 mark.
The effort to get the dedicated pickleball courts in BV started way back in 2014. McDonald described learning the game from a friend and becoming “instantly hooked.” Within three months, she had become an ambassador — a volunteer committed to growing the sport in their region. Originally, the group was organized informally with a steering committee. When they realized, in order to pursue grants, they needed to become official, they organized and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2017.
With a Facebook fundraiser and tournaments, they raised more funds. “We literally scratched and begged,” said McDonald. We received amazing support from our club members, friends and family. Once the effort started gaining traction, the town and the county both contributed and local businessmen and contractors like Paul Moltz, ACA Products and Miles Construction helped out. Regarding the site excavation, McDonald said, “Everyone thought we were nuts; we thought we were nuts. It was a huge unknown because we didn’t know how big the boulders were in there (north of the current tennis courts). I am pretty sure (Miles Construction) didn’t make any money.”
As is true with many projects in Buena Vista, the courts have been a group effort. McDonald noted, “Earl Richmond, the Director of BV Recreation, has been amazing; everyone has been amazing.” She recalled when the permitting process needed to be signed by a Colorado licensed engineer and the court was scheduled for a pour on August 1. The County came out on a Saturday, just prior, to get the paperwork signed in time. McDonald was grateful for the effort because the concrete has to cure for 30 days and temperatures have to be above 30 degrees for those days. “Up here, the window of opportunity can be pretty small.”
The Peak to Peak Pickleball Club has dedicated members as well. McDonald shared that the club didn’t have sufficient funds for the shade structure in the center of the court just weeks before the scheduled pour. The company wouldn’t sell the posts separately, so the committee scrambled to raise the funds and a member took his flatbed trailer all of the way to Texas to pick up the poles and shade sail. Moved by the effort, the company rushed the order and was able to get it ready in just three weeks, right on schedule for the pour. McDonald smiled, “I am so proud of the group that made this happen; a member once said we are like bumper cars. We hear ‘no’ and we back up and try a different path.”
The club hosts spring indoor tournaments in Buena Vista and will host a second annual fall tournament in Centennial Park by the Aquatic Center in Salida on September 16-18. Currently there are 200 players from 14 states registered. Interested players can contact McDonald for more information. There will be food trucks, vendors and a silent auction. While the Centennial Park courts are currently dual-use, meaning they have both tennis and pickleball lines, McDonald noted, “Salida is the next funding goal. We need dedicated pickleball courts there too; there are no barriers between courts so balls are constantly rolling onto adjacent courts.”
Club membership is exploding with a total of 237 current members. In the summer, the club offers certified instructors and clinics. You can register for them on the club’s website, peaktopeakpickleball.com. In the spring of 2022 alone, the group taught more than 75 people how to play pickleball. The Buena Vista site will still need bleachers, signage and dedicated parking as well as artificial turf around the court to keep rocks and dirt off, “so if you know any millionaires …” laughed McDonald.
Interested players can reach McDonald at email@example.com for information about supporting the cause or club membership. They also accept direct donations via their website.
Starr Hill was raised off the grid in tipis and old mining cabins between Fairplay, Como, Hartsel and Leadville. Now a teacher, she is raising a family of her own and working on a memoir of lessons she learned growing up off the grid.
This is sponsored by PJ and Merrell Bergin.