Pickleball Growth In Puerto Rico Led To First Sanctioned Tournament, Plus Referees

By Joanne C. Gerstner
Red Line Editorial

Trish Stewart and Julie Scott weren’t entirely sure what they were getting into back in 2019 when they agreed to join an effort to train interested pickleball newbies in Puerto Rico. The sport was more of a concept on the island back then, thanks in part to the serious, widespread structural damage from 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

Their efforts, through multiple trips to hold USA Pickleball clinics, have helped Puerto Rico develop the infrastructure to recently hold its first sanctioned tournament, and have a crew of 24 certified referees.

Stewart, the regional training coordinator for USA Pickleball’s Atlantic South Region, said she quickly recognized the growing connection between the sport and Puerto Rico.

“It’s just been a dream, because of the warmth of their spirits, the joy they have for learning pickleball, and we see how quickly our sport is growing,” Stewart said. “Every trip we have taken to Puerto Rico, things have gone to a new level.”

Scott, the certified referee training coordinator for the Atlantic South Region, paired with Stewart to their multiple trips to the island. The women had adventures on and off the court; from learning about the concept of island time (as in, matches and clinics start when people show up) to getting lost driving around in the golf cart-only Palmas Del Mar seaside community. 

“People were so excited to get involved in the sport — they want to play, they want to be part of the pickleball community,” Scott, USA Pickleball’s ambassador-at-large, said. “What more can you ask for?”

USA Pickleball membership on the island has grown from 30 to now over 200.

Meanwhile, Stewart and Scott’s efforts, plus help from USA Pickleball referee coordinator Mark Peifer and certified referee/master teacher Dereck Prince, led to Javier Gonzalez becoming Puerto Rico’s first certified referee. Seven more have become level 2 referees, and 16 are at level 1. Fostering that many referees into the pipeline is significant, especially considering some only speak Spanish. The USA Pickleball rule book and referee level tests are currently only in English. Many speak English and Spanish, but prefer to referee only in Spanish.

Gonzalez was relied on for help to bridge the language gap. In the end, the love for pickleball, and the desire to be inclusive, won.

“They’re so enthusiastic, they’re out there taking charge, from the start, even though they are young. They’re already confident,” Stewart said. “They’re only going to get better and better, and we want to encourage them to keep trying to get more experience and move up levels. It’s been like motherhood, almost, because these are people we have nurtured for so long, and now they are flying on their own. I am so grateful to see the fruits of our labor.”

All the Puerto Rican referees, plus Scott, Stewart and certified referee Larry Scott, were in action to handle the inaugural sanctioned tournament over the weekend of April 28-30. The schedule, which amounted to 314 matches played on only six courts, was a logistical challenge. Humor and patience stayed strong during the daily tropical rainstorms, which delayed play for hours and sent the competitive day late into the night.

“The players would show up, smiles on their faces, bring the music, and sometimes the beer, and enjoy being part of pickle,” Stewart said. “There was real excitement about this happening, because we all knew it was a big step. Having the capability to do a sanctioned tournament, and a very successful one at that, showed everybody what was possible. Bigger things will come for sure.”

Stewart sees the arc of Puerto Rican pickleball growing rapidly, limited only by small overall court inventory. She said larger developments are planned, and more tournaments are being scheduled. If the infrastructure is larger, she sees a pro tour event being well-received. Scott and Stewart hope to be back in 2024 to referee the next edition of the sanctioned tournament.

Knowing other people find joy and community in pickleball warms Stewart’s heart. The sport has brought the same sense of comfort to her, karmically timed with the start of the Puerto Rico effort in May 2019. She easily recalls the origins, as it is forever synched with the quick and unexpected serious illness, then death, of her husband, Tom. 

Right before he became ill, they discussed the concept of her getting more involved with pickleball, particularly in teaching clinics. He was totally on board.

And so she went to Puerto Rico for the first time, with a heavy heart. She’s since found more happiness through connection with others, such as the growing Puerto Rican community, through pickleball.

“Going to Puerto Rico and meeting such lovely people with a passion and love for our game and each other, was a big step for me right after he died,” Stewart said. “They helped me find a measure of peace, by knowing I was doing something good by being there with them with his blessing. I will always have a warm spot in my heart for them because of that. It was the right place for me to be, and they helped me just as much as I think I have helped them.”

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.