By Wilma Allen
“We are a little obsessed with Pickleball,” Shelly Duncan wrote in an email last week, just after she and her husband, Bruce, set off in their camper van for New England to play pickleball.
They learned the game at Central Park in Fernandina Beach in 2017 and customized a van with pickleball-themed graphic “tattoos” for long trips in 2019. Since then, Shelly and Bruce have crisscrossed the country playing pickleball all along the way. They started with a trip to see their son in Nashville (and play pickleball), their daughter in Montana (and play pickleball), and family members in other parts of the country.
Before the year was out, they had played pickleball in Tennessee, Montana, New York, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado and Kansas. In the following three years, they played games and tournaments in scores of courts and clubs, in dozens of states, including Hawaii and Alaska. After playing in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts this fall, they will have served, volleyed, and dinked in all 50 states.
If the Duncans’ peripatetic pickleball is unusual, their passion for the sport is not. Americans have taken up the game in droves in the last few years, including celebrities, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen DeGeneres; sports stars, Andre Agassi and Tom Brady; and billionaire, Bill Gates, whose fellow billionaires are investing millions in professional teams, players and merchandise.
This remarkable growth nationally is mirrored by the sport’s rise on the island. It started just 10 years ago, when Dave Cultice and a couple of his friends got permission to play on the city basketball court at Main Beach. Each time they played, they’d sweep the courts, mark off pickleball borders with blue masking tape, set up their net and have a ball. Then they’d pack up everything back in their cars until next time.
Soon, the core of diehards expanded enough to form the very sociable club, “Pickleball Pirates.” With Cultice’s leadership and lots of eager volunteers, they chipped in to purchase improved supplies and encouraged Parks and Recreation staff to build four, now six, designated pickleball courts in Central Park.
As these became more and more crowded, additional courts have cropped up in private communities on and off the island. And several local players have gained attention well beyond the local scene.
Bruce and Shelly’s pickleball journey began after they retired from Navy careers, raised three children, and moved from Annapolis, Maryland, to Fernandina Beach in 2016. They got hooked on the sport almost immediately and now, with their goal of playing in all 50 states essentially accomplished, you’d think they would be ready to put down their paddles for a while and relax.
But no, they have an exciting new pickleball venture in the works.
By the end of next year, they expect to open “Pickleball 365,” a membership club on Route 17 in Yulee. They purchased the land last year, roughed out plans, worked out financing, and are currently navigating the design and permitting process. Plans call for eight covered and individually fenced courts, bathrooms, and a small snack/rest area to be open every day. The public will be invited, players can join as members, and full-blown pickleball addicts, like Sherry and Bruce, will have another place to have fun.
For information, visit nassaupickleball365.com
Caption: Shelly and Bruce Duncan on their cross country adventure