Caught in a Pickle

Ron and Tami Mast were exposed to a competitive outlet in the unlikeliest of places. They set out to share their discovery by connecting their community to one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States.

By Brian Knapp

A chance encounter in paradise sent Ron Mast tumbling down the rabbit hole. He and his wife were enjoying a cruise to the western Caribbean in 2019 when a couple from Arizona introduced them to a world they never knew existed. Their lives have not been the same since, for it seems as though pickleball—a sport best described as a tennis and ping-pong hybrid—tends not to let go once it sinks its teeth into you. 

“I thought, ‘What the heck is pickleball?’ I’d never heard of it,” Mast said. “We got out there and started playing on deck, and that was it. We got bit. When we came home, we started googling, ‘Where can you play pickleball?’” 

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Options were frustratingly limited. Their search took them to the Walton County Boys & Girls Club in Monroe as the nearest location where pickleball was offered. “That first night, we went up there and had nothing,” Mast said. “We started playing and fell in love with it.” Soon, they were swinging their paddles at a church in Bethlehem and at Bay Creek Park in Loganville. “We did that for about the first year maybe,” Mast said. “Every time, we were driving like 45 minutes, and we thought, ‘Why don’t we have it in Covington. There’s no reason not to have it in Covington,’ so we started doing some talking.” Conversation led to action, and the Covington Pickleball Club was brought into being on Nov. 9, 2020 at Wolverine Gym.

“We went over there and taped down some courts,” Mast said. “We had eight people that first night. Now, we’re over 80-something. That’s how we got started.” 

“We had eight people that first night. Now, we’re over 80-something.”

Ron Mast

Suddenly, Ron and Tami Mast found themselves caught up in a wave with one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States. More than five million people now participate nationwide, and the number swells by the day. With an ongoing push to make pickleball an Olympic sport and television deals exposing it to an even wider audience, its popularity only figures to surge further. The Masts spent a year as area ambassadors for USA Pickleball, the body that governs the sport nationally. All the while, they expanded their local chapter, its members ranging in age from 12 to 85. There are no fees associated with joining the Covington Pickleball Club. Dots are connected through the club’s Facebook page and a GroupMe app that keeps interested parties in the loop. 

“Word of mouth is how it spreads more than anything,” said Mast, a 63-year-old father of two and grandfather of six. “The great thing about pickleball is it doesn’t matter what your age is. I played softball until I was 58. I thought I’d never find anything to play that was competitive. With pickleball, you can play as competitive as you want or as laid back as you want.” 

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The sport offers other perks. It rebuilds old bonds once thought lost, forges new friendships between people who might not have otherwise met and strengthens current relationships between fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. 

“When my wife and I found pickleball, we were like, ‘This is something we can do together and have a good time.’ We get to play together,” Mast said. “There aren’t many sports where the husband and wife… it’s hard to go play football together; it’s hard to play basketball together. In pickleball, you can play with your wife. You can be as competitive as you want to. 

“The group is great,” he added. “We’ve met so many new people, and then, old friendships are rekindled. There are a couple of people I hadn’t seen in 20, 25 years, and all of a sudden, we start playing pickleball together and now we’re back to where we were when we were playing church basketball and softball against each other.” 

The club meets multiple days per week, either inside the Ronald M. Bradley Gymnasium at Turner Lake Park or outside on the tennis courts at City Pond Park. When the Newton County Recreation Commission resurfaced the City Pond facility over the summer, it created four courts that were dedicated to pickleball. It was welcomed progress.

“We still don’t have enough room,” Mast said. “It’s almost like a reptile. They’ll grow as big as their surroundings. Whatever they give us, it’s going to bring more people in. We have people not only from Newton County, but we have people coming in from McDonough, Loganville, Madison [and] Monroe. When they hear about it, people come.”

The Covington Pickleball Club operates under USA Pickleball rules and regulations. It held its first anniversary tournament in November 2021, limiting the number of entrants to 36. The field was expanded to 45 participants for 2022. The response has been overwhelming. 

“Now, we have a waiting list,” Tami said. “It’s so much fun. We just laugh the whole time. You don’t even realize you’re getting good exercise.”

Improving access remains their primary goal.

“Getting courts is the big thing,” Mast said. “If you look at other counties around us, they’re all building huge pickleball complexes, where they have 14 to 18 courts and they stay busy all the time.” Tami echoes her husband’s sentiments: “I think we could grow this fast—huge—if we had the facilities.” 

For information on the Covington Pickleball Club, email CovingtonPickleBallClub@USA.com or visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100063692822472.

Click here to read more stories by Brian Knapp.

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