ISLAMORADA PICKLEBALL COMMUNITY RALLIES FOR MORE COURTS

Kim Booth recently started taking pickleball lessons at Founders Park, and like so many others, she’s already addicted to the sport.

“This pickleball, it has me completely hooked,” Booth said. “If I could go to adult sleep-away camp to learn more about pickleball, I’d be there,” she added with a laugh.

For Booth, pickleball has filled a void in her life left by retirement. Two years ago, after 42 years of ownership, Booth’s family sold their iconic business, Norman Brothers Produce in Kendall. Her life suddenly felt empty, until pickleball.

“I believe in this game. It is such great exercise. It’s meeting people,” said Booth.

Booth lives in Homestead and commutes two to three times a week down to Founders Park to learn more about the country’s fastest growing sport. Her husband volunteers with the Islamorada Fire Department and is the one who introduced her to the game.

“Pickleball is my passion and I am just so eager and thirsty to learn every bit of this game,” she said.

On one recent day, Booth was watching some of the best players from the Upper Keys take tips from two pickleball professionals during a clinic at Founders Park. 

Jennifer Gallwas and her pickleball partner David George play in the National Pickleball League for the Naples team. Gallwas is a physical therapist and lives in Chicago. George is an ethics and philosophy professor at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. To offset the costs associated with participating in tournaments, the professor and PT host clinics around the country. The clinics focus on both the physical and mental aspects of pickleball.

“I’m trying to really incorporate how to stay strong and support your joints, and not just for pickleball, but for life,” said Gallwas.

“At a certain level, it’s not about who has the best forehand, it’s about who can hit that shot under pressure, who doesn’t break down, who keeps a positive attitude, who doesn’t yell at their partner, things like that,” said George.

Susie Jannach is a tennis professional who also teaches pickleball at Founders Park and runs the pickleball program. Six years ago, she held an open house on the basketball courts to gauge local interest in pickleball. The response was overwhelming with more than 100 people turning out.

“Being a tennis coach I knew it was only going to be a matter of time before I needed to incorporate pickleball,” said Jannach of the sport’s rising popularity. 

Pickleball has become so popular, securing court time can be challenging and frustrating. At Founders, the three courts in the dedicated pickleball area are always busy. Two additional courts have been added to the basketball courts, but players say it’s simply not enough.

“When the snowbirds come down or people that have second homes come down here during the winter, there are lines and it gets a little chaotic; people just want to play,” said Islamorada’s Russell Hubartt. He plays pickleball every day and is one of about a dozen players who have resorted to hitting the courts before the sun comes up, at 6 a.m., to get some playing time in before the crowds arrive.

“Down here we have three courts and it’s beautiful, but I wish we could have a dedicated 10 courts; that would be perfect and everybody could play,” added Key Largo’s Scott Van. He is so devoted to the sport, he started his own pickleball paddle and apparel line called diNGK Sports. 

Van and Hubartt are accomplished, ranked players. During the recent clinic, they even managed to beat the visiting pros during a game.

Islamorada resident and pickleball enthusiast David Epstein has been pushing for more courts for at least a year and a half. He also serves on the Islamorada Parks and Recreation Citizens’ Advisory Committee. 

“It is a battle to get on the court,” said Epstein, who would like to see six additional courts built at the park. 

“I’ve been passionate about it,” he added.

But exactly where to build the courts and how to pay for them continues to be the subject of debate. 

Maria Bagiotti is the director of Founders Park, a position she’s held since 2017. She’s worked at Founders for 23 years. 

“I do understand why everyone is so intrigued with it; it’s fun,” she said of the interest in pickleball.

Bagiotti said the village is in the process of hiring an engineering firm to come up with an overall plan for Founders amenities, including its pickleball complex.

“What they are looking at is adding more additional courts to where they are at right now,” said Bagiotti. She adds a lot of details would need to be resolved, including funding, parking and lighting.

“There is a need and the public has been very verbal about it,” said Jannach. “We’re hoping to get them (courts) sooner than later.” 

Visiting pickleball pro Jennifer Gallwas believes the sport will continue to gain in popularity.

“People want to play,” she said. “It’s inclusive. It’s something you can do at any age.”

Next week Keys Weekly will hit the courts in Key Largo and address what Monroe County is doing to accommodate the surge of pickleball players.

Kellie Butler Farrell is a journalist who calls Islamorada home. Kellie spent two decades in television news and also taught journalism at Barry University in Miami and Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. She loves being outside, whether spending time on the water or zipping down the Old Highway on her electric bike, Kellie is always soaking up the island lifestyle. Kellie and her husband own an electric bike rental company, Keys Ebikes.