Not only is pickleball growing in Aiken, but the players here are getting better at the sport.


Stan Courtnay, athletic program coordinator for the City of Aiken Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, pointed to the multiple local players that had already won medals at the Palmetto Doubles Invitational Pickleball Tournament by Saturday afternoon. Only one homegrown player picked up a medal a year ago, and there were still plenty more to be won during the event, which continues today at the H. Odell Weeks Activities Center.


“I know our quality of play has gotten better,” he said.


Loretta Beckner, who helped bring the sport to Aiken in the fall of 2010, said that she was pleased to see the improvement, particularly from the area’s lower-level players.


“I can tell for sure ... they have been working so hard all year,” she said. “It’s very gratifying for me because this is what I was wanting to see.”


Beckner, along with partner Wendy Sparrow, won the women’s doubles 60s bracket at the 4.0 level, and the team advanced to the quarterfinal round in the main draw of a combined bracket of the women’s 50s 4.0 players and 19+ 4.5 players. Other area medalists included Bobbi Atwel and Sharon McCracken (first place, women’s 70s 3.0), Beth Perry and Barb Dellamora (third place, women’s 60s and 70s 2.5), Jane Hostetter and Grace Vance (first place, women’s 60s 3.0), Nancy Bickerman and Kathleen Reiter (first place, women’s 60s and 70s 2.5), Connie Dennis and Susan Andrew (second place, women’s 60s and 70s 2.5) and Helen Burges and Miriam Garcia (first place, women’s 19+ 3.0).


Burgess has only been playing pickleball since March.


“It’s kind of exciting,” she said. “It’s a new sport, and it’s fun.”


Garcia is the veteran of the team. She began playing in November and said it was “wonderful” to have the opportunity to compete for a championship so close to home.


“She learned everything she knows from me,” Garcia said of Burgess, with a laugh.


The turnout for the tournament has also grown from last year, when 108 people competed in the event’s various brackets. This year, 138 participants registered from 11 states, with four even coming from Scotland. Both Courtnay and Beckner pointed out that even that number was up, with two Scottish players entering last year’s tournament.


“That’s really good because we’ve only had pickleball here for a few years,” Courtnay said of the growing numbers.


Courtnay, 27, has played pickleball, but he elected not to play in the tournament because he didn’t feel he had practiced enough. Beckner, 65, confirmed the importance of preparing for tournament play, saying that it was an “adjustment” to be ready for multiple matches throughout the day, spaced at varying intervals.


“I don’t care what level you’re playing at; a tournament takes a lot out of you,” she said.


Despite that, she maintains her position that pickleball is a sport that can be played by all ages. While it requires skill, reflexes and strategy, it is easier on the joints and body in general than similar sports like tennis.


Because of that, pickleball is especially popular with Aiken’s seniors while also drawing younger players like Courtnay.


“I really do think this is a sport you can play for life,” Beckner said.


The tournament will continue today with mixed doubles action and is free for spectators.


Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University. Follow him on Twitter @ASJTimm.