Pickleball national champion aims to grow sport in Salem

Wes Gabrielsen, who was recently named head pickleball professional at Illahe Hills Country Club, poses for a portrait on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

It’s pickleball’s era. We’re just living in it.

The sport – invented by a few rambunctious kids in the Pacific Northwest 57 years ago – has shed its humble middle-school gymnasium reputation to become a sensation. The Economist declared it the fastest growing sport in the country. The International Federation of Pickleball counts 67 nations among its members, and the Washington State Legislature just introduced a bill that would make it the state’s official sport.

Evidence of pickleball’s growing popularity is right here in Salem, too: Illahe Hills Country Club just named 11-time USA Pickleball National Champion Wesley Gabrielsen as its first-ever head pickleball professional. 

“My goal is to create an environment where people enjoy learning about and just enjoy playing pickleball,” Gabrielsen said.

Gabrielsen started on Jan. 3, hosting lessons, camps, clinics and drop-ins, among other pickleball-related activities. He’s also developing a local league, helping Illahe Hills build a culture around the sport and host special pickleball events.

According to Michael Litwin, the club’s general manager, embracing the sport is a savvy business move. The cohort that participates in the club’s main activity, golf, is shrinking and aging. 

They’ve had success expanding alternative sports programs before. A 2010 remodel gave the club an aquatic center, which increased the number of social memberships at Illahe Hills, Litwin said. But it was their investment in tennis that really provided a roadmap for pickleball – two years ago, the club brought on three tennis pros to help elevate the program.

“We proposed to the membership turning our current tennis facility into the pickleball center, and building a new tennis center,” Litwin said.

“When I got here we didn’t have pickleball at all,” he added. “Easily for the last 12 to 15 years, it’s been the No. 1 growing sport.”

What is pickleball?

Pickleball, to put it simply, is a hybrid between badminton and tennis, with a touch of ping-pong sprinkled in. Players volley a Wiffle ball back and forth over a low net using solid wooden or rubber paddles. The rules are pretty straightforward: The ball should bounce once on each side, and it can’t go out of bounds. If you serve and your opponent messes up, you get a point; if your opponent serves and then messes up, you get the serve, and with it the opportunity to score.

Details can be taught during gameplay (a serve, for example, must be hit from below the waistline, and it must travel diagonally to land on the opposite side of the court). But the appeal of pickleball is that you can really pick up the finer points as you go.

It’s for everyone – a sport of the people. It’s unfussy, inexpensive (full equipment sets retail online for about $50), and accessible to most ages and abilities. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a genuinely good time.

That’s what first drew Gabrielsen, a competitive tennis player and Sprague High School graduate, to the sport. He picked it up in college for fun. 

Gabrielsen competed in his first professional tournament in 2013 and has been rising through the ranks of the sport since.

“It’s very social. It’s less taxing on the body,” Gabrielsen said. “But when you get to the higher level, it’s a heck of a workout.”

He partially attributes the sport’s recent surge in popularity to the pandemic. Families were desperate for something to do together when most of the world shut down, and pickleball provided a fun, low-barrier and relatively Covid-safe activity. 

If anyone wants to give the sport a try, Gabrielsen directs them to USA Pickleball’s Places2Play website, which allows users to search for courts near them (a search in Salem, Ore. turned up nine locations).

“The learning curve is so much easier for people to learn pickleball at a quicker rate and be successful,” Gabrielsen said. “You can have an 8-year-old, a 60-year-old, a 40-year-old and a 20-year-old on the same court, and they can sustain a rally.”

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