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Pickleball Smashes Parkinson's

Wednesday March 16, 2011

Four avid players rely on the sport to help manage their disease.

GigHarborPatch - A lot of men might spend three days a week pumping iron or shooting hoops at the Gig Harbor Family YMCA, but you'll find Doug Manuel and his buddies playing pickleball.

"It's a fun game. You can't take a plastic ball that seriously," said Manuel.

The sport was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island by several friends who were looking for something fun to do, and they named it after one of the inventors' dog, Pickles. Today, it’s a popular sport for many locals, including Gig Harbor residents.

But for Manuel and three friends, this unique hybrid of badminton, tennis and pingpong isn't just a sport. It's therapy.

"I feel different if I don't play," said Gene Armstrong, who joins the group each week. All four men have been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and they said the game helps them focus on balance and coordination.

During the week, they split their time between the Y, where they join other pickleballers who play competitively, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound, where they work on the basics.

From the footwork to the ground strokes, they don't take anything for granted.

Manuel was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease seven years ago at age 55--the same age his mother was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative brain disorder.

"I noticed that I was catching my foot," he said. "The doctor said I couldn't have Parkinson's because [it was] one-sided. My mom's was one-sided."

But just to be sure, Manuel saw a neurologist.

"The neurologist took one look at me and said, ‘You have Parkinson's.’"

With his paddle, Manuel is taking a swing at the disease. He said he has played pickleball for more than 35 years. But since retiring in 2008, he’s intensified his passion. And in the past year, he recruited Armstrong, 74, Bruce Higgins,62, and Rick Olivier, 63, whom he met through activities at YMCA.

"The more I exercised, it's the best medicine you can take," Manuel said. "I've even increased it to where it's called forced exercise, where you increase the aptitude and duration and that creates new connections in the brain."

Parkinson's is a gradual and progressive neurologic disease caused by the breakdown of the normal dopamine-producing cells in the brain, according to Sharon Jung, an advanced registered nurse practitioner, ARNP, CNRN, at the South Puget Sound Neurology,

"The same process is happening for everybody. Everybody would have Parkinson's disease if they lived to be 120. We don't know why, but some people's break down quicker than others. When about 80 percent of dopamine is absent or not being used the way it should, that's when symptoms start," she said.

Jung said the most noticeable symptoms include tremors, slow and stiff movements and difficulty balancing.

Parkinson's can also immobile facial expressions, which Manuel said can lead people into isolation.

While scientists have yet to find a cure for the disease, Jung said there are ways to manage and treat Parkinson's, and physical activities such as Tai Chi, bicycling and pickleball help exercise the brain's circuitry.

"It's a great way to get exercise without thinking about it,” said Higgins. “You just get in the game. Get in the competition and end up exercising longer and more aggressively than I would normally.”

All four said it was difficult to accept their diagnosis at first, but they're also determined not to let the disease slow them down.

"(Pickleball) makes me feel still young," said Higgins. "I don't know what it is, but I really look forward to it."

Armstrong agreed. "It's a large part of my life because I feel so much better after playing it, and I think the exercise is helping slow down the progression for it," he said. "Parkinson's disease isn't a death sentence. You can live with it if you manage it correctly."

Manuel enjoys the boost, too.

"When I have a good day and I'm on, get a good shot--I don't have Parkinson's.”

Community Resources

While participating in physical activities is important to those with Parkinson's, there are other ways you can stay informed, voice concerns and ask questions about the disease.

Advanced nurse practitioner Sharon Jung said getting involved with community groups also helps maintain relationships with friends and family.

Manuel and Jung head local resource groups for people and their loved ones with Parkinson's disease. Manuel started Gig Harbor's first Parkinson's support group in 2008, and he and the others currently meet second Wednesdays every month at St. John's Episcopal Church at 4 p.m. Jung coordinates a group in Tacoma.

"People tend to not come if they're newly diagnosed because they don't want to see the future," he said "Once they get to immobile, they don't come."

Jung said she's working to create a group for early diagnosis called "Early Parkinson's: What's Next."

"We both see the enormous need for early detection for Parkinson's and make sure they have accurate information," she said.


1965 – After playing golf one Saturday during the summer of 1965, Joel Pritchard, congressman from Washington State and Bill Bell, successful businessman, returned to Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island, WA to find their families sitting around with nothing to do. The property had an old badminton court so Pritchard and Bell looked for some badminton equipment and could not find a full set of rackets. They improvised, cutting shafts of the damaged rackets and found a perforated plastic ball. The rackets didn’t work very well, so the dads created four wood paddles, similar to today’s wood paddles. At first they placed the net at badminton height of 60 inches and volleyed the ball over the net. As the weekend progressed, the players found that the ball bounced well on the asphalt surface and soon the net was lowered to 36 inches. The following weekend, Barney McCallum was introduced to the game at Pritchard’s home. Soon, the three men created rules, relying heavily on badminton. They kept in mind the original purpose, which was to provide a game that the whole family could play together. The Pritchards had a cocker spaniel named Pickles, who became interested in this new game. Whenever a ball would come his way, he would take the ball and run off with it, because you see, it was Pickle’s ball. And that is how the game got its name.

1967 – The first permanent pickleball court was constructed in Joel Pritchard’s backyard in Seattle, Washington during the winter of 1967.

1972 – A corporation was formed to protect the creation of this new sport.

1975 – The National Observer published an article about pickleball followed by a 1976 article in Tennis magazine about “America’s newest racquet sport.”

1976 – During the spring of 1976, the first known pickleball tournament in the world was held at South Center Athletic Club in Tukwila, Washington. David Lester won Men’s Singles and Steve Paranto placed second. Many of the participants were college tennis players who knew very little about pickleball. In fact, they practiced with large wood paddles and a softball sized whiffle ball.

1984 – USAPA “was organized to perpetuate the growth and advancement of pickleball on a national level.” The first rulebook was published in March, 1984. The first Executive Director and President of USAPA was Sid Williams who served from 1984 to 1998. He was followed by Frank Candelario who kept things going until 2004.

1984 – The first composite paddle was made by Arlen Paranto, a Boeing Industrial Engineer. He used the fiberglas/nomex honeycomb panels that commercial airlines use for their floors and part of the airplane’s structural system. Arlen made about 1,000 paddles from fiberglas/honeycomb core and graphite/honeycomb core materials until he sold the company to Frank Candelario.

1990 – By 1990, pickleball was being played in all 50 states.

1997 – Joel Pritchard passed away at age 72. Though he was Washington State’s Lieutenant governor from 1988 to 1996, he is probably better known for his connection to the birth of pickleball.

2003 – There are 39 known places to play in North America listed on the Pickleball Stuff website. This represents 10 States, 3 Canadian Provinces and about 150 individual courts.

2003 – Pickleball was included for the first time in the Huntsman World Senior Games, held each year in St. George, Utah during October.