After discovering pickleball, Larry Lam, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam after the war, and his family have embraced the sport fully.
By Joanne C. Gerstner
Red Line Editorial
Larry Lam let out a hearty laugh while piecing together his family’s unexpected journey into pickleball. About a decade ago, Lam was asked by an out-of-town friend for a ride to a pickleball tournament near his home in Surprise, Arizona.
Lam had no idea what pickleball was, or what his friend was doing. But when he dropped the friend off, he became intrigued. What was that sound? What are they doing? Why are there so many people here?
“I wanted to see what they were doing, because everybody looked so happy,” Lam remembered. “Then I heard that new sound, the ball being hit sounded very attractive, so I decided I would come back to see more.”
Lam indeed returned to watch more of the weekend tournament, and by Monday he decided to try pickleball himself on a neighborhood court. A week later, he said he had to buy his own paddle and started taking lessons because he was hooked.
What started as a favor for a friend has turned into something much larger. Lam is a strong recreational player now with a 5.0 rating, and wife Mikki Lieu and their three kids also live on the pickleball courts. The family has been playing together for years, both for fun and as a shared activity.
But things are now taking another dramatic twist. The three Lam kids, Jaden, 15, Kody, 13, and Karina, 10, are winning national tournaments and looking at making the sport a more significant part of their futures.
Jaden won three gold medals at the recent 2023 Biofreeze USA Pickleball National Championships powered by Invited and the PPA Tour, sweeping the following divisions: Junior Boys Singles (ages 15-16), Junior Boys Doubles (15-18) with Kody, and Junior Mixed (15-18) with Karina. Karina also won Junior Girls Singles (8-12) and took bronze in Junior Girls Doubles (8-14 and 15-18).
The Lams accomplished similar results in the 2022 USA Pickleball National Championships, with the family bringing home a bucketful of medals including three golds across various junior divisions.
They’ve won a number of other tournaments, medals and scholarships, all part of a growing haul of awards on display in their bedrooms.
“We play 5-6 nights per week, and the whole family plays. We all like it because we are together,” Larry said. “There are not a lot of sports where parents and kids can play together. Now, our lives revolve around pickleball and we’re on the road a lot for tournaments. But, in our family, education comes first. Whatever the kids want for their future, we tell all three kids that it is education first, after that is pickleball. … They know what we expect of them.”
The kids share a passion for pickleball, mixed with the normal family dynamics of wanting to beat each other — and of course, their dad — on the court. Jaden admits he is as good as Larry now, just starting to regularly best him this year. Kody wants to beat Jaden, but knows he needs to work a little more discipline into his speed and creativity. The family predicts that little sister Karina may end up the most fearless and skilled of all. She does not back down from her brothers on the court and has learned she can take on much bigger and older kids with her skills.
“I just love playing pickleball. I feel really happy even when I am stressed or nervous before a match,” Jaden, a sophomore in high school, said. “It’s fun to play with my brother and sister, because we all make each other better. My sister is the best partner, because she is not scared. She can get everything back, even when she is being smashed at. And Kody is so fast, he can do the most amazing shots. He is phenomenal, so talented. I mean, my dad is really good too, he has a lot of wisdom and knows what to do. So we all teach each other.”
Jaden is discussing playing higher-level tournaments, such as pro events, to advance his playing resume. He wants to attend college while also having a professional pickleball career. Right now, his pickleball life serves as a glimpse of the future and a stress-reliever from high school.
Kody, an eighth grader, admits similar aspirations, but is further away from that decision point. He’s more about the social aspects of the game and deepening his skills.
“I’m playing for fun. I like being with my friends and my family,” Kody said. “I think I am pretty good, but I still have a lot of places to improve on. I know I can beat most people my age right now, but sometimes playing tournaments is not as much fun for me because I get stressed out. But I think I am learning how to be better with that as I do more tournaments.”
Larry said watching his youngest play against teens, especially bigger boys who can have 5-7 years on her when she is in mixed events, can be eye-opening. He is nervous, bordering on worried, for her safety. Mikki doesn’t like watching any of the kids play too closely, as the experience worries her too. She roams around, keeping a watchful eye without being too obvious.
Karina understands their emotions, as she feels them too. But her drive and love to win quells the butterflies.
“Sometimes they are so much bigger than me, but I try not to think about it,” said Karina, who is in fifth grade. “I think it helps that I am playing with my brother, he boosts my confidence more. He is a great player. He helps me get calmer and not worry about what is going to happen. I shake it off. I like when I beat people bigger than me, it makes me feel really good.”
Larry said he wants his kids to have every opportunity, on and off the pickleball court. He said he is open to whatever path is ahead for his kids, wanting them to be healthy, happy and taking care of their studies. His perspective is informed by his own life, coming to the United States as an immigrant from Vietnam with family. Their lives in Vietnam were hard due to the aftermath of war, but the struggle to get the approvals to reach the U.S. were also traumatic. He spent a year in a crowded a refugee camp in Thailand, waiting for their name to be called for the United States.
The day finally came, and Larry settled in the U.S. and made a good life.
“I appreciate everything I have, and I want to be happy in my life. I want the same for my wife and children too,” Larry said. “I want us to be together, enjoying our life, and we have gotten so much of that from pickleball. I would be happy with whatever my children did in pickleball, as it is all not about the winning. It is about trying your best and being with others. I am glad we have pickleball for all of those reasons.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes about sports regularly for the New York Times and other outlets. She is a freelance contributor to USA Pickleball on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.