USA Pickleball Ambassador Jamie Elliott Is All-In On Growing Wheelchair Pickleball In Texas

Elliott was determined to return to the sport after sustaining partial paralysis of her legs, and now she wants to bring other wheelchair players along too.

By Joanne C. Gerstner
Red Line Editorial

Jamie Elliott wants to change the face of pickleball, knowing her efforts will take time.

She fell in love with the sport in 2010 and soon became heavily involved, reaching the 4.0 level as a player while working to spread the word and get others on the court too.

But then her life changed after a March 2019 surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on her spine. Surgical complications led to partial paralysis of her legs, and doctors told her she would likely never walk again.

Despite the uncertainty, Elliott, of McKinney, Texas, declared one thing from the first moments of her recovery: She was going to play pickleball again. She is indeed back on the court, though these days in her sport wheelchair, and now she wants to bring as many adaptive players into the sport as possible.

“Pickleball is, at its essence, all about being a sport for everybody,” Elliott, 73, said. “I have to admit that I didn’t consider the sport, and what needs to be in place, when I wasn’t needing a wheelchair. I just played, and did everything. But after that surgery, I realized that I could have a future in pickleball even if I wasn’t strong enough anymore on my legs.

“I wanted to be back playing because I knew it was such an important part of my life, I didn’t want to stop. I was depressed and down without it. It brought me back to life. I needed to find the best way to keep pickleball in my life.”

The surgery setback took her away from active pickleball for 22 months, but Elliott stayed in the sport by volunteering at tournaments and watching her friends play. All the while she worked intensely at physical therapy, determined to regain her ability to walk — and return to pickleball.

After a while, she realized that while she was making huge strides in walking with assistance, the lingering weakness in her legs would make playing able-bodied pickleball difficult. So Elliot turned to Plan B. Recalling having seen Pam Fontaine — a U.S. Paralympic bronze medalist in wheelchair basketball — play pickleball, Elliott decided she would play using a wheelchair.

She has not looked back.

Her motto is, ”Where there is a wheel, there is a way.”

“I’m still learning the best way to do shots, and how to move while in the sports chair,” she said. “You cannot rest your paddle on your lap, so you have to keep it up between shots, switch hands, hold one for the paddle and then the other hand moves the chair. It’s a lot of moving parts, and you have to get that to a point where you feel it’s all working well.”

Elliott is a USA Pickleball Ambassador, a role she served before her surgery.

In her new perspective as a wheelchair player, she has worked to develop pathways to bring more accessibility to the sport. Unique issues face wheelchair pickleball players. For example, the base of the chair is wider, allowing for more stability during athletic play. However, that functional element can make the sport chair too wide to fit through doorways at pickleball facilities — even those that are up to code for non-sport wheelchair accessibility. Players need assistance to gain access to such facilities, a process that can include having to take the wheels off their chair and then reassembling everything.

Elliott knows that the development of community — from being part of founding a national non-profit organization (P3 Para Pickleball Program), to creating adaptive groups to play in the Dallas Metroplex, to finding providers for equipment — will lead to growth.

There’s been some notable progress. Fifteen Chicken N Pickle locations around the country offer twice-weekly adaptive court time, and Carvana sponsored a Pickleball for All clinic to help introduce the sport. Elliott’s active profile on Facebook helps connect other players to resources. Six sport chairs have been donated and will be available to help new players have better on-court movement.

Elliott is hopeful that the growth of pickleball, at all levels, will bring more resources to her passion. Having full inclusion of adaptive pickleball fields at tournaments across the country is still a few years off, according to Elliott, because of the logistical issues and financial burden of travel.

But the joy of being part of pickleball is real, and Elliott wants to ensure access for all.

“It’s the best thing to stay active and make connections within the community, for all ages and all abilities,” said Elliott, who worked as a Screen Actors Guild-carded stuntperson for two decades in movies and TV shows. “I’ve always been very athletic, and having that part of my life means a lot to me. It’s part of keeping me in good physical and mental health. I know that pickleball is that outlet for so many others too.

“We want to take away all the barriers and just truly open this up as a wonderful opportunity for everybody to stay active, make great friends and have fun.”

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.

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