Robert McCandless had never envisioned himself as a pickleball player. His wife, Gail, had been the one with a sports background, and pickleball became her post-retirement passion.
Time In His Woodshop
As an artist, Robert had intended to dedicate his time to his woodshop. However, upon their arrival in Nacogdoches, East Texas, just over four years ago, Gail required a playing partner, leaving Robert with no alternative.”
“I hit that ball one or two times and said, ‘Uh oh, now I know what a puppy feels like when you throw a ball,’” he tells Karen Price, freelance contributor to USA Pickleball on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
“I immediately got sucked into it. Like, this is cool. Then I went crazy for pickleball.”
A Pickleball Hub
Thanks to their dedication, Nacogdoches has transformed from a town of 30,000 without any pickleball courts and only a handful of enthusiasts to a pickleball hub now boasting a minimum of 18 courts and a community of over 300 avid players.
Robert says, “It just does my heart good to be able to see those courts full and know people are meeting one another and they’re getting along. It’s bringing people together, and it’s increasing people’s health.
“You don’t have to be lonely in this town. Don’t have a paddle? Come. We’ll loan you one. Everyone’s got two or three. That’s what does my heart good.”
After residing in Austin for 35 years, Robert and Gail embraced a different lifestyle when urban living no longer appealed to them. They liquidated their possessions and embarked on a nomadic journey, spending the ensuing seven years in their trailer.
Their travels took them from one church camp to another, where they devoted several months at each location to volunteer work, such as repairs and painting, assisting with whatever tasks the camp required.
It was during one of these camps that Gail, who is now 74, was introduced to the sport of pickleball.
As she says, “They were so inviting when I walked on the court. They put a paddle in my hand, showed me the rules, and it was a nice community.”
“Where Are The Pickleball Courts?”
One day, not long after settling in Nacogdoches, Gail stumbled upon a post on a local online community page that read, “I thought Nacogdoches was supposed to be a retirement city. Where are the pickleball courts?”
She recalled the name of the author, and several weeks later, the two crossed paths at the local farmer’s market. Along with a small group of other interested players, Robert and Gail successfully persuaded the city’s recreation department to grant them access to a gymnasium space.
They diligently laid down and removed tape each day, but in no time, the makeshift courts were bustling with players, often with people waiting their turn. Additionally, they arranged for a few courts to be set up in their church’s gymnasium.
A Variety Of Nets!
Although they now had places to play, it was far from perfect. Consequently, Robert initiated discussions with city officials regarding the neglected tennis courts at a nearby park. He proposed that if the city provided the necessary materials, a group of volunteers would be willing to undertake the task of repainting and converting the area into six pickleball courts.
Upon completion, these courts were quick to fill with enthusiasts.
“It was funny because the city didn’t give us nets; they just let us mark courts off,” says Robert. “Well, I had a net, someone else bought a net, and someone else bought a net, and then at Christmas, I think everyone who played must have gotten a net for Christmas. You’ve never seen so many different styles and colors of nets.”
A private donor offered funds to the city to establish 12 new courts on a disused tennis pad in another locality. Given the demonstrated popularity of pickleball, the city ultimately permitted this generous donor to finance the project.
Robert expressed his gratitude for the significant contribution of private funds and volunteer labor in creating these courts. He emphasized that their collective efforts played a vital role in enhancing the city’s overall quality.
He said, “I want to have an investment and see other people have an investment in things going on in the city. Whether it’s time, talent, or treasure, it makes no difference, but we all need to be a part of it.”
Among the 300 individuals who now play regularly in Nacogdoches, you can include the mayor and his spouse, the city manager and his partner, as well as members of the police department. It was through Robert’s unwavering encouragement that these influential figures joined the cause.
Recently, a competitive league has been initiated, and preparations are underway for the inception of a senior one.
Robert and Gail are glad to relinquish some of the organizational responsibilities to younger folk as they look forward to the sport’s continued growth and prosperity in the community.
“It’s like a big family,” says Gail. “If we have a new person come on the court, they’re greeted, and then we put a paddle in their hand and teach them to play. We’re a very welcoming group of folks. That’s how we started it, and that’s how they’re keeping it going. We taught them well.”
The once reluctant Robert remarked that witnessing the remarkable expansion of pickleball within such a brief timeframe has been truly astonishing. Moreover, he discerns no indications of this growth tapering off; on the contrary, he anticipates continued momentum in the sport’s popularity:
“Everyone says I’ve done a lot of work, and I haven’t. I’ve met people, and I like meeting people and talking to people. I know half the people in the city now. What pickleball has done for me is more than what I’ve done for pickleball. It introduced me to all these people, and I love it.
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