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Para-Pickleball Picking Up

Reprinted from SNS September 2017

Rock N Roll Pickleball is leading the charge to ensure a relatively new sport is inclusive for players with and without disabilities

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 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.

Under the organization she founded, Rock N Roll Pickleball, Barlow aims to make pickleball fun, competitive and, most of all, inclusive for players with and without disabilities.

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 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.”

The Beginning

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.

The 2016 Valor Games Far West and Midwest saw the first para-pickleball exhibitions.

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. 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.

For more information, including the official rules, visit or


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Para-Pickleball Picking Up


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