Six months ago, Cathy Sykes was sinking deeper into depression, an illness she has suffered with most of her life.
“She felt her life was really kind of over,” Sykes’ mom, Barbara Elliott, said. She was also spending a lot of time at home watching television.
Elliot, concerned about her daughter’s depression and physical health, started taking Sykes to the gym. There, she tried yoga and spin classes. She enjoyed both. But then she discovered pickleball, and she fell in love.
“Pickleball is like my godsend,” Sykes said.
Since she began playing in June, Sykes, 49, has lost weight, improved her eating habits and cut back on medication she takes for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Pickleball is a paddle sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and pingpong. It is played on a court smaller than a tennis court, and uses a slower-moving ball similar to a wiffle ball – but slightly smaller.
It’s an easy sport to learn and doesn’t require intense footwork, said Drew Wathey, a spokesman for the U.S. Pickleball Association.
Sykes moved to Durango in 2008, and she has worked at the DoubleTree Hotel, Sonic, Walmart and McDonald’s. But she currently isn’t working because of arthritis in her hand. After she started going to the rec center with her mom, she received a pass to the center from Division of Vocational Rehabilitation that allowed her to practice pickleball five days a week.
Outfitted in her Southwest Colorado Pickleball Association sweatshirt and T-shirt during an interview, Sykes described herself as a walking billboard for the sport.
“I went crazy with it,” she said.
Pickleball is growing in popularity across the U.S. and in Durango. A year ago, the Southwest Colorado Pickleball Association had six active members. Now, it has close to 100, said President Brian Blanchard. Nationwide, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association estimates there are about 2.5 million pickleball players.
When the game was invented in the mid-1960s, it was most popular with retired people. But it is drawing a much broader audience, said Paul Toppenberg, Sykes’ friend and ambassador for the national association.
“It’s almost instantly addictive,” he said.
When Sykes started playing, she was a bit shy and reserved, Toppenberg said.
“The Cathy I met wouldn’t look at you,” he said.
Toppenberg helped Sykes practice and as she improved, she came out of her shell and gained self-confidence, he said.
Sykes’ speech can be rapid and at times hard to understand, so pickleball was a great fit because she doesn’t need to talk much, Elliott said.
In addition to working up to competing in pickleball tournaments, Sykes worked to compete in her first 5-kilometer race in July and a triathlon in August.
“I think by just challenging herself, she has found a new lease on life,” Elliott said.
Working out and playing pickleball also allowed for more mother-daughter time.
“I used to see my mom on weekends only, and when she started taking me to the rec center, I thought, ‘Well this is cool. I can see my mom more,’” Sykes said
Her father, Bob Sykes, also noticed a change in Sykes when he visited from California in November.
“My dad is proud of me, finally,” she said.
On Nov. 1, Sykes had surgery on her knuckle for her arthritis, so she has stopped playing pickleball games for now, but she still goes to the rec center to set up nets for other players and to practice warming up.
“Everybody there is so kind and so supportive,” Elliott said.
Sykes plans to start playing again in January and compete in a tournament early next year.