She certainly didn’t see it coming, but Judy Sullivan has become Guilford’s go-to guru of a sport that’s gaining popularity with the senior set — Pickleball.
The Guilford native and Parks & Recreation Commission member stepped in last year as the Park & Recreation Department’s Pickleball instructor, after the instructor space unexpectedly opened up. It’s no surprise Parks & Rec turned to Judy for help—she helped the department lay the ground rules when the idea was brought in by Senior Program Coordinator Terry Buckley, who wanted to offer classes as a recreation option for Guilford’s senior citizens.
Judy had an edge over most because she’d taught Pickleball as part of the sophomore curriculum during her days as a Guilford High School (GHS) physical education teacher. After a 17 year career, Judy retired as a GHS health and physical education teacher in 2008.
“My life has been coaching and teaching, so when I retired I knew the Pickleball rules. So I started by helping Park & Rec with the rules, and they got situated. Then, one of the girls left, so they asked if I would follow up with it,” Judy explains.
Judy took over last spring and since then the program has mushroomed. Right now, some 30 to 40 players ages 55 and up populate a numerous sessions offered by Judy through Guilford Parks & Recreation. Some session are held indoors at the Community Center, but most take place at the town’s newly lined Pickleball courts within the two tennis courts behind Adams Middle School. Because Pickleball uses half a tennis court for play, there are four Pickleball courts behind Adams.
“We were up at Bittner Park with two courts last spring, and as it grew this last fall, we moved down to Adams and Park & Rec painted the four courts to keep up with the expansion of people in the program,” Judy says.
The town also has two courts marked out at Guilford Lakes School outdoors (play is allowed when school is not in session).
Registration for summer Pickleball for players aged 55-plus of all levels is going on now, and Judy encourages anyone with an interest to sign up at www.guilfordparkrec.com. Classes that start in July are offered for different levels of ability on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, with Judy leading numerous classes each day over several hours (early morning to early afternoon, as well as an evening advanced class on Mondays) for students of every type—beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Summer sessions will run through late September.
Judy and her Pickleball players were having so much fun last year, “we layered up and played outdoors until the second week of December!” she says.
The group then moved inside to play at the Community Center and also had the option, for a slightly higher fee, to play on indoor courts at Guilford Racquet and Swim Club. Judy says Guilford Racquet and Swim Club has been a great supporter of the program. She also credits Buckley with bringing the idea of adding Pickleball classes to Guilford Parks & Recreation a few years back, and keeping seniors interested in coming out to play.
The game is great for seniors because “it’s like tennis, but it’s not as hard on your joints, because you’re not running as much. It’s reflex action, basically. But many of the rules do mimic tennis. We have our courts lined in blue, and when you serve, you have to get it past the seven-foot line—which is called ‘the kitchen.’ I always called it the ‘non-volley zone’ in high school. Now, I see T-shirts that say, “Stay Out of the Kitchen—Play Pickleball,” says Judy.
Judy says teaching high school kids and teaching active seniors is “pretty much the same thing.” Her old teaching habits include wanting to encourage everyone to enjoy the activity. For example, she advances winning teams by asking those who were “the less fortunate” in the preceding game to rotate off the court. She’s also likes to emphasize Pickleball is by no means “slowed-down tennis,” which is a term she’s often heard applied.
“They call it a slowed-down tennis game, but it’s quicker than that sounds,” Judy says. “If they hit the ball right, and they’ve got the tennis skills, the ball can travel fast. Tennis players do really well, but they’re used to tennis balls, which are bouncy, instead of a Pickleball, which is hard like a Wiffle ball. So they have to learn go to the ball instead of waiting for it to bounce to them like a tennis ball would.”
Pickleball is served underhand (think ping pong)—never overhand, which is another rule that takes a bit of getting used to if you’ve played plenty of tennis, Judy says.
Pickleball’s played with a stubby, paddle-style racquet with a smooth surface. The town has racquets for Parks & Recreation classes, but many players prefer to buy their own graphite/wood combinations. The common paddle size is about eight inches wide and just under 16 inches long. There are no restrictions on thickness or weight, Judy notes. Pickleball can be played on indoor or outdoor courts, which are similar in size to badminton courts.
Judy’s a virtual encyclopedia of Pickleball play and has also done her research on Pickleball history. She says the game was originated by U.S. Congressman Joel Pitcher of Washington in 1965.
“He invented a family game with a plastic ball that’s similar to a Wiffle ball and a paddle that’s smaller than a tennis racquet with a smooth surface. In the process of playing with his family, his dog, Pickle, chased the balls, which is why they named it Pickleball.”
Above all, says Judy, the game of Pickleball is simply “fun.” She says it can be played by all skill levels and all ages. As a member of the Parks & Recreation Commission, Judy has been able to be an advocate for recreational Pickleball in town, sharing information with commissioners on the sport and updates on the response from Guilford’s senior players. She even organized as successful tournament among her recreation players last year.
Many shoreline towns also support Pickleball as a sport for seniors. Nationally, the game draws amateur-level and pro-level players to big tournaments.
“It’s gaining in popularity in this area of the East Coast and it’s really popular already in places like Florida,” says Judy. “When the snowbirds come back to Guilford from Florida, we pick up quite a few players here.”
Judy also loves to see people out on the town’s courts, playing Pickleball on their own.
“As this has grown, a lot of people have bought their own nets and equipment,” she adds. “Our family bought nets and equipment, because when the Sullivans get together, we love to play—and to compete!”
Judy (maiden name Dudley) grew up on Tanner Marsh Road on her dad’s dairy farm and graduated from GHS in 1965.
“I always loved sports, In high school, I was a ‘cheery cheerleader’ because back in my day women didn’t have many sports. I did play softball and I also ran some track when I was in high school. In college, I played club field hockey.”
Judy’s first job was teaching physical education and coaching with Madison Public Schools soon after she graduated from college in 1969. She married her high school sweetheart, John Sullivan, who’s family established and still operates J.J. Sullivan Fuel Co. in town (Judy’s father and John’s father were high school classmates).
“I have a picture of my husband at my 1st-grade birthday party! I am truly Guilford,” says Judy. “Even in high school, I coached Little League teams on the Green. I guess it’s in my blood.”
Judy took a hiatus from teaching in 1976 to raise the Sullivans’ three young children, but got back into coaching, then teaching, within several years thanks to an invitation to coach field hockey and a couple of other sports at Adams Middle School. She went on to coach and instruct at Baldwin Middle School for a few years, then part-time at Calvin Leete and part-time at GHS before joining the GHS faculty and coaching staff. Now, she’s very content to be involved as a hands-on instructor leading the town’s senior recreational Pickleball program.
“I love working with people in the athletic field,” says Judy.
Judy says it’s also a pleasure to volunteer for the town as a member of the Parks & Recreation Commission. She enjoys her work with the other members of the commission as well as collaborating with the professionals of Guilford Parks & Recreation and the Guilford Senior Citizens staff. She invites any interested adults 55 and over to join her Pickleball classes.
“The more the merrier!,” says Judy. “It’s a fun game, so just relax, and come for fun!”