How one man’s pickleball pastime became a lifelong passion and where to play in Siskiyou

For seniors seeking a fun and social way to stay in shape, Tom Burkhart has the answer

By Jessica Levy
for Humana
Tom Burkhart’s early experiences with pickleball were the beginning of a hobby that turned into a lifelong passion.

Nearly 40 years ago, when he was a physical education teacher at Baker Middle School, in Baker, Louisiana, Tom Burkhart stumbled across a box in a closet. What he found would eventually change his life as well as the lives of many others: pickleball equipment.

Burkhart describes the sport as a cross between tennis, ping pong and badminton. Intrigued by the rules and by the silly name, he and a few other teachers and coaches decided to give it a shot.

“We opened it up and we read the directions. It sounded very interesting and so we decided the next day we would come back and meet and try the game out. We had a blast. It was just fun,” Burkhart said.

“The kids loved it. It was different from anything they had seen before and was easy to learn,” he said. “It was also social. Just like tennis, pickleball can be played as a doubles game and the kids were excited to pick partners and to play against their friends.”

Where to play pickleball in Siskiyou County

Pickleball is a popular pastime in Siskiyou County, with a number of places for people to grab a racket and play.

In Mount Shasta, there are permanent pickleball courts adjacent to the Mt. Shasta Resort. Two of the tennis courts are painted with blue pickleball lines. There is organized play on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings in the summer. For more information, contact Sooz Waller at 530-859-3294.

In Montague, there  are the Montague/Yreka Community pickleball courts, at 201 S. 14th Street in Montague. The summer schedule is Monday, Thursday, and Saturday from 8 to 10 a.m., with possible evening hours as well. For more information, contact Snow Thorner at 541-292-2772. 

In Yreka, three pickleball courts were recently added indoors at the Siskiyou Family YMCA, located at 350 N. Foothill Drive. They're used mainly during the winter months.

In Dunsmuir, there are two courts at the Dunsmuir City Park on either side of the tennis nets.

From teacher to pickleball participant

Burkhart’s early experiences with pickleball were the beginning of a hobby that turned into a lifelong passion. After seeing a local newspaper advertisement looking for players at a gym just two blocks from his home, he eagerly signed on. Soon, he found himself really looking forward to the games.

“You make friends. There’s teamwork involved, and you get people off the couch and get a real camaraderie of people,” Burkhart said. “A lot of times there’ll be a group that plays and then after the game is over they all go to some place and have lunch together.”

In 2008, a friend associated with USA Pickleball asked him to participate in the National Senior Games Association’s pickleball tournament. It was the first time that pickleball would be included in the National Senior Games.

Burkhart and his pickleball partner took home the gold in the men’s doubles event, although he joked that the small number of competitors meant that his competition wasn’t too stiff. Still, they won fair and square and it was only the beginning of his competitive career — and the beginning of a groundswell of interest in pickleball.

Pickleball's skyrocketing interest

A box of pickleball equipment inspired Burkhart to play and get others involved in the game.

Burkhart did plenty to help encourage that rising interest. At different times, he took up varying leadership roles related to the sport. First, he became a volunteer ambassador with USA Pickleball. Then, he became a regional director for the organization, in charge of promoting the sport and arranging tournaments in the Mid-South region for 12 years. He also competed in tournaments, including multiple National Senior Games as well as the National Senior Games Association’s State Games.

Burkhart’s efforts, along with the efforts of his colleagues and fellow players, have certainly paid off. Over the years, as pickleball has gained a larger and larger following, the number of players competing in those tournaments has been skyrocketing.

“The Sports & Fitness Industry Association gives estimates of how many people are playing in the country that year. In 2016, we had about 1.3 million [players], and then it just about doubled the following year to 2.5 million. The next year went to 3.2 and then last year there were 4.2 million,” Burkhart said.

Burkhart cited a few theories on why the game has exploded in recent years, including the fact that it’s good exercise yet easy on the body. He also emphasized that the social nature of the game — the same thing that appealed to his middle schoolers — also appeals to seniors.

“It’s good physical and mental fitness. It’s a heart-healthy sport. Also, there’s lots of laughter.”

There’s so much laughter, in fact, that Burkhart knows many people who became interested in the sport because they were at the gym playing tennis when they heard people having fun nearby and wanted to see what it was all about.

“They hear all this carrying on. People go where the noise is, and they see all these people having fun, they hear them having fun,” Burkhart said. “Then, the players are so anxious to help other players learn.”

A pickleball ambassador for the long haul

Although he retired from his official position with USA Pickleball last year, Burkhart will forever consider himself a sort of informal ambassador of the sport. He still gets emails and phone calls from people interested in getting started, and is eager to point them in the right direction and to USA Pickleball’s “Places 2 Play” website.

At the end of the day, Burkhart is all about helping people stay in shape and have a good time. For his efforts and impact, he received the distinctive honor of being named a Humana Game Changer. Humana Game Changers exemplify healthy aging and provide encouragement and inspiration for all to age actively.

To learn more about how Humana empowers senior athletes through the National Senior Games, visit nsga.com.

Siskiyou Daily News sports editor Bill Choy contributed to this story.