The “Parkie Picklers” in Atlanta are Changing Perceptions About their Disease Through Pickleball

By Bob Reinert
Red Line Editorial

Every Monday between 1 and 3 p.m., a dozen or so people gather at Sandy Springs Tennis Center in Atlanta to play pickleball. Those around them likely have no idea that every member of this active group has Parkinson’s disease.

Ellen Bookman, who also boxes and is a competitive horsewoman, is one of the players. She was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s in 2018 at age 52.

Often when someone learns that these players have Parkinson’s, their first response is to say, “I’m sorry” or look at the group with pity. Bookman and her playing partners take pride in changing those perceptions.

“Everyone is competitive,” said Bookman, adding that the group makes no attempt to keep their diagnoses a secret. “It’s just that you want to be looked at as people that can do anything despite a chronic illness like Parkinson’s, and especially a muscle-movement disorder like Parkinson’s.”

The group began playing together less than a year ago, and Bookman sees a big difference from the point at which they started.

“I’ve improved so much, and I love watching the change,” she said. “Working with these women that I play with now, we all take lessons from the same guy. We take a lesson, and then we play.

“It’s just a really wonderful experience. At this point, I have watched so many people improve on the pickleball court. Many of the team play because they love the game — but they are just as competitive as anyone else on the courts.”

As Bookman noted, exercise is vital to people coping with Parkinson’s every day.

“Whatever it is that people do, it’s for a little while that you forget about having Parkinson’s,” she said. “It affects our daily life. It’s a moment in time where I go and I’m happy.”

Bookman is one of more than 200 members of the Atlanta-based Center for Movement Challenges, which focuses on helping those with Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, as well as veterans.

“This non-profit changed my life as it is where I went after finally peeling myself off the couch following my diagnosis,” she said. “The irony is that I am in the best shape of my life since starting to box in 2018.”

As a social sport that keeps her brain active and helps with her balance, pickleball is a big part of the exercise solution for Bookman.

“It’s like another building block to feeling the best that you can. It’s the socialization. It’s making new friends,” said Bookman, adding that pickleball “is like a whole new world to many of us.”

According to Bookman, pickleball helps as much with the mental challenges as the physical ones associated with Parkinson’s.

“One of the most important things is our mental wellness,” she said. “The more stress we get, the more our symptoms come out. This is like the happy place.”

Now retired, Bookman spent 33 years working in the public relations field.

“I’m a very, very social person, but when you have the disease, there’s a lot of anxiety, apathy, and depression,” she admitted. “That’s half the battle with the disease.”

Bookman writes about her journey with Parkinson’s in her blog.

“As an active member in the Parkinson’s community locally, nationally and abroad,” said Bookman, “I know the struggles people live each day with the disease.”

The Parkinson’s pickleball group will use the sport to raise awareness of, and fundraise for, the Center for Movement Challenges. Bookman is the event coordinator for the NO LIMITS Pickleball Challenge, which will take place Sept. 9 at Sandy Springs.

“As the beneficiary of the fundraiser, the Center for Movement Challenges’ mission is to enhance and potentially prolong the lives of those living with movement challenges,” said Bookman, “including Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.”

The Challenge will be an all-level, round-robin tournament. Players need not have partners to enter, but space is limited. The $50 entry fee is tax deductible.

“We started to plan the Pickleball Challenge,” said Bookman, “and that’s where we are right now.”

Many of the Parkinson’s pickleball group players will play in the Challenge, which is aptly named.

“We have no limits,” Bookman said. “We can do anything.”

Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to USA Pickleball on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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