By Joanne C. Gerstner
Red Line Editorial
Never in her most optimistic visions did Alice “Jo” Hancock see this coming 20 years ago. It started in the early 2000s, when Hancock, a tennis player since childhood, was introduced to a new sport with an odd name in her retirement community in Arizona.
After one practice session, she changed her allegiance from tennis to pickleball and embarked on a playing career that has netted more than 150 medals — including national titles.
But let’s rewind from today.
Back in 2005, Hancock made a big decision that launched a movement: she applied to be a member of a new association called USA Pickleball.
In doing so she became member No. 001. She’s since been joined by more than 71,000 others.
“It’s quite shocking to see what has happened, but I guess somebody had to be the first, so it’s me,” Hancock, 86, said. “It was always something, for me, that was about having fun and staying active. I tell everybody that the root of pickleball is fun. I’ve never met anybody bad who plays pickleball. It’s about the community and the people you meet, it keeps you coming back for more because it is so much fun. I’ve really enjoyed every minute.”
Hancock has done it all in the sport: playing singles, mixed doubles and women’s doubles. She’s traveled the country for the past 20 years, competing in tournaments, seeing old friends and competitors, and always making new pals.
At the start of the sport’s growth, there were only a few places that had courts, and the community had not yet found its traditions. Hancock said the social aspects of the game, namely the après-match gatherings of bring a “hot dish and drinks,” meant a lot. The tournaments were intense, but the fellowship and sportsmanship brought even more to the experience.
“We all knew each other, and that made it so nice when you got to be together socially,” she said. “We all wanted to beat each other on that court, so we gave it our best. But when it was all over, it was time to laugh and have fun. That was some of the best times.”
She’s also been active in teaching teens how to play pickleball, emphasizing how the game can be a bridge to physical fitness and happiness. Hancock teamed with Pickleball Hall of Famer Norm Davis to bring the sport to students at schools in Surprise, Arizona. She gives him the credit for being the main instructor, but later admits she did her share in the mentoring.
“I love kids, all of them, because they found their place in pickleball,” she said. “I just had to let them go out there and have the experience. I think everybody wants to have fun, and bringing that part of the sport to children means they have something for life. Pickleball can be played by anybody for the rest of their lives.”
Hancock also refereed matches, organized tournaments and recruited members, and she said she remains open to do anything to help the sport grow and thrive. She is convinced that pickleball claims all comers, once they give the sport a try.
“It’s been incredible to witness the unbelievable rate at which our membership has grown over the last 18 years,” said Nikki Greene, USA Pickleball’s Managing Director of Membership. “It all started with Jo and her love and support of the game and sending in that very first membership application. As much as pickleball has grown since then, membership today is still driven by the wonderful sense of community our members share through their love of the game.”
Hancock grew up as the youngest of five children, with four older brothers. She played every sport growing up, trying to keep up — and beat — her brothers. She said her past athletic experiences, especially coming with a strong tennis background, made her quickly click with pickleball.
“I am very competitive,” she said. “I just don’t want to be out there to play. I want to win, and I’ve won my fair share over the years.”
Hancock has battled bone cancer the last few years, adding that she now is healthy and working her way back to hopefully playing again soon. She is exercising daily, focused on regaining her strength and movement to play to her standards. Once she gets her balance back to cross-over with her feet, a skill she feels is essential for her kitchen moves, she will be on the court.
She has spent thousands of hours playing pickleball, and she misses the action and kinship. Her husband of 65 years, Bill, is her biggest fan. He does not play but comes to her matches — under one condition.
He cannot watch her play. (Or at least, not watch her with her knowing he is there.)
“It makes me so stressed and nervous, so when he comes with me, I tell him to get lost!” Hancock said, laughing. “He jokes he is here to see the person he cannot watch. But I’ve sometimes caught him taking peeks. I tell him to go sit somewhere away from me.”
Hancock sees pickleball continuing to grow and expand, and she is thrilled to see younger generations discovering the sport. She admits she was shocked when she saw the sport on TV for the time; now she is amazed at the skill of the top professionals. It’s a whole world she never imagined, with the best players making big money and having professional leagues and teams.
Her pickleball is a more personal and a passion of her heart: it’s a wealth of lovely memories, the satisfaction of winning and the joy of being part of a connected community.
“They’re all taking pickle to new places, really, everybody is,” she said. “The more that play, the better it always gets. We’re getting more and more beautiful places to play, talented people of all ages, because it’s all about how nice pickle is. It’s brought so much to my life. I don’t want ever to give it up.”
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.