Picking Up Para-Pickleball

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News October 2017

Borrowing the rules from a few traditional net sports, a new game with a funny name is growing in popularity among the adaptive community.

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Take some rules from tennis, badminton and table tennis, throw in a large plastic Wiffle-style ball, oversized, lightweight paddles and courts that are about a third the size of tennis courts, and you end up with a sport that’s gaining popularity in the adaptive sports community. It’s a sport called para-pickleball. Washington resident Adrienne Barlow sees the potential in pickleball as an adaptive sport and is working hard to create a national program for both competitive and recreational para-pickleball players. Barlow aims to make pickleball fun, competitive and, most of all, inclusive for players with and without disabilities under the organization she founded, Rock N Roll Pickleball.

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2016 Participant Report, there are more than 2.5 million pickleball participants in the United States and there’s at least one pickleball court in all 50 states. However, that hasn’t made it any easier for para-pickleball competitors to find a place to play. That’s why Barlow has made it her mission to educate and increase awareness of the sport of para-pickleball and to support inclusion and access to all sports through her organization.

“Our whole goal is creating membership and affiliated clubs right now,” Barlow says. “Right now, it’s spreading like wildfire. I’m having a hard time keeping up with it.”

Creating A New Sport

Pickleball was born on Washington’s Bainbridge Island in the mid-1960s. Joel Pritchard, a Washington congressman, his neighbor Barney McCallum and businessman Bill Bell are credited with creating the game so their families would have something to do together. They had access to a badminton court but didn’t have a full set of rackets, so they improvised with table tennis paddles and a perforated ball. Over time, they developed rules and the game began to catch on with everyone from children to seniors. According to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) website (, there’s a debate about how the sport’s name originated. One theory is that it was named after the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, who would chase after the ball and hide it. The other hypothesis is that the name was derived from boating terminology.

In English yachting, the “pickle boat” is the last boat to come into the dock in a race. Joel Pritchard’s wife, Joan, who was a competitive  rower, claims she started calling the game pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”

Regardless of how the name came to be, a corporation was formed in 1972 to protect the creation of the new sport, and in 1984, the USAPA was established and published an official rulebook.

Barlow got hooked on the sport as a standing athlete. She joined the Air Force in 1986 and also conducted research as a life scientist, physical scientist and environmental protection specialist. In 2012, she was diagnosed with a rare progressive muscle disease that caused paralysis and forced her to end her military career. That also happened to be the year she was introduced to pickleball.

“I moved to the Northwest. I had not been familiar with pickleball at all, and then I saw pickleball being played at a local YMCA,” Barlow says. “I immediately just asked ‘What was that sport?’ And just seeing them play it with the kind of equipment they had and that it was a court sport that could be played in a gym, that intrigued me.” 

As her condition worsened, she began having trouble walking and in 2013, she got a wheelchair. 

“There was one episode where literally I had to be carried off the court, and I knew at that moment in time that I was going to return back in a wheelchair, and I did,” Barlow says.  

After a national committee approved the wheelchair rules for national and international competition, Barlow, a USAPA ambassador, formed Rock N Roll Pickleball. Currently, the USAPA recognizes Rock N Roll Pickleball as an official adaptive pickleball initiative and supports the development of the national para-pickleball program under Rock N Roll Pickleball, Barlow says. Barlow has partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Puget Sound Health Care System to form Rock N Roll Pickleball’s first member club, Team Tacoma, and is now seeking prospective athletes, coaches, family members and volunteers across the country to become members and form more affiliated clubs. 

The 2016 Valor Games Far West and Midwest saw the first para-pickleball exhibition. So far, she’s received interest from about 300 people, and that number continues to grow as Barlow constantly travels to give clinics and demonstrations across the nation. Barlow says her biggest obstacles are finding and training coaches, as well as finding facilities with adaptive courts. To address the coaching shortage, Rock N Roll Pickleball created a certified para-pickleball specialist credential program for people who want to volunteer to lead an affiliated club. In addition to tournament formats, Rock N Roll Pickleball is developing a classification system, expanded guidelines and rules that would include all permanent physical disabilities.

Rockers & Rollers

Pickleball can be played on either indoor or outdoor courts. Many RV parks, community centers and senior communities have built courts, and pickleball lines can either be taped or painted onto existing tennis courts. As in traditional pickleball, para-pickleball has singles and doubles matches. Games are played to 11 points. A team must win by two points, and only the serving team can score. Wheelchair players are allowed two bounces of the ball on their side of the net, and the second bounce can be anywhere inside or outside the court boundaries. Barlow emphasizes that strategy is a huge factor in para-pickleball.

“One of the strategies is you always have to keep moving,” Barlow says. “The more movement, the more court you’re going to be able to cover. And when we first started out with the rules, having a second bounce in there, there were some athletes already playing the sport of pickleball who did not want the second bounce in there. I learned quickly that if you play the second bounce on the ball, that can be a very good control shot and strategy for many reasons, especially if you’re playing against someone who hasn’t ever played against a wheelchair before. There’s a lot of different things you can do with that second bounce and the time between the first bounce and second bounce that you can take advantage of. It’s a good backup shot, too, for your partner.”

The divisions Barlow created for para-pickleball are unique to the sport: “Rockers” are standing athletes, while “rollers” are wheelchair athletes. There is also a “rock and roll” division where any para-athlete can compete alongside a roller. Equally unique is a non-para division for friends and family who don’t have a disability. All that’s required to play is one person’s a rocker and one is a roller.

“It’s really fun. There may be some swearing going on during that division … because if you’re a non-disabled player and you played as a rocker your whole life, but your friend’s a rocker amputee or something, that means in order for you to play, you’re going to have to play in a wheelchair,” Barlow says. “That’s why there’s a lot of swearing going on during those divisions. But it’s really fun, everyone gets a kick out of it, and everyone walks away with some enlightenment at the same time.”

A Fun Challenge

Michael O’Leary began playing pickleball about 2½ years ago and started out as a rocker. A retired firefighter and paramedic from Bloomfield Township in Michigan, he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a degenerative brain disorder, about two years ago and now plays as a roller. O’Leary has only played as a roller for a few months. He’s struggled to acclimate because of limited lateral movement in the chair, forcing him to learn new strategies for where he should be on the court and his body placement for return shots. But he says playing in a wheelchair has given him a new appreciation for the game and competition. 

“I love and thrive on competition and also pickleball is a great social activity for me,” O’Leary says. “Playing in a wheelchair has given me an opportunity to once again be competitive, active and play the sport I became addicted to when I was still playing on foot. Playing in a wheelchair is also very good therapy for my brain disorder, according to my neurologist.”

Air Force veteran DeeAnne Cooper was introduced to pickleball by her recreational therapist and has been playing for over three months. She’s a below-the-left-knee amputee and has played as both a rocker and roller. 

“I would have to say building my endurance and stamina to compete as a rocker is the hardest,” Cooper says. “I have played other sports before, but none have been more physically challenging or more fun. It’s easy to play after you get all the rules figured out.”

Patrick Edlin, an Army veteran, was also introduced to Team Tacoma by his recreational therapist. Edlin started playing as a roller after having multiple strokes, but he now plays as a rocker. As a former tennis player, he likes that pickleball is easier to play because of the smaller court, you don’t have to hit the ball as hard and the ball doesn’t travel as far or as fast as it does in tennis.

“The only advantage that I can see as a roller is you get two bounces before you have to hit it [the ball],” Edlin says. “I never felt I was at a disadvantage as a roller because the game has rules in place to make it more even, but I enjoy being a rocker. It’s just easier to play when not in a wheelchair, like most things in life it’s easier to not be in a wheelchair, but you learn to adapt.”

In 2018, Rock N Roll Pickleball hopes to launch membership program and develop an international committee to seek international funding sources and help create avenues for managed and structured development of competitive opportunities. 

At some point, the group may pursue a 501c3 charity status. For now, Barlow is just happy to be able to empower others. 

“For me personally, I know the dedication and meaning behind why these athletes participate in the sport, and I can’t help but identify,” Barlow says. “I can identify with the pain involved and the feeling of overcoming with every hit of the ball. When I have done my job well via coaching, my volunteers often realize the potential of these athletes. Most often, they never had that insight and it may become overwhelming to them … Sometimes, potential just needs good coaching and understanding. That goes for the volunteers, coaches and athletes. We shall all overcome.”

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