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Players find passion in pickleball
Larry and April Seekins of Billings travel the surrounding states playing in pickleball tournaments. The two also give classes on the sport at the YMCA.

The thwack of a ball against paddles is only the sound in the gym at the YMCA. Two teams are competing for an unknown prize, sweat glistening on their brows.

The reverie of the exchange is broken after only a few seconds, when a woman in jean shorts and a T-shirt sends the plastic ball whizzing past her opponent.

"Yes," April Seekins shouts, complete with a victory spin, arms above her head. "Don't mess with grandma."

At 63 and 62, April and Larry Seekins don't look like bulked-up athletes. But give them everything they need to play pickleball, and you get pair of swaggering jocks.

The two are headed to Colorado this weekend to compete in singles and doubles pickleball at the Rocky Mountain Senior Games.

"It's a low-impact game, but it's pretty cutthroat," Larry says. "Pickleball attracts a lot of nice people off the court. But something happens when they get on the court."

"You try to run your opponent to death until they crash and burn," April says.

True to words, Larry and April are ferocious on a pickleball court. It's hard to believe the game is low-impact, as spectators could break a sweat just watching the two play.

Larry, dressed in white shorts and a white Nike headband, lunges for every ball out of his reach. April runs into a wall chasing down a shot from an opponent — without losing the smile on her face.

As for any other athlete, it's just part of the game. The two lose their match, but instead of excuses, they come off the court with an 'aww, shucks' attitude.

The two began playing pickleball in 1977, but they didn't learn the rules until taking lessons in 1988 while they lived in Oregon.

Pickleball started in Washington with the families of Bill Bell, Barney McCallum and Joel Pritchard. The game is named after a family dog, Pickles, who would chase after loose balls.

There's been discussion to change the name from 'pickleball' to something more formal, Larry says. But players have insisted on keeping the original name.

"Besides, you can say things like 'never a dill moment' or 'I relish this game,' " Larry says.

And Larry and April do relish the game. They've played in every major seniors tournament the pickleball circuit offers, traveling from Washington to Florida for competitions.

"While we're not at the top, we're among the competitive players," Larry says. "Pickleball has just rocketed in your active retirement communities." The Villages, one such community in Florida, has 96 pickleball courts, he says.

Larry says one of his partners had an artificial hip. The man couldn't pivot correctly, so he instead turned in a circle to return balls. Another man had to take hits of oxygen between plays.

"There's quite a subculture of pickleball players," Larry says. "It's kind of a lifestyle for us."

So much of a lifestyle, in fact, that Larry and April are Montana's pickleball ambassadors, charged with promoting the sport and the USA Pickleball Association.

The Seekinses also have a pickleball court in their backyard. The weathered rubber court often is home to its own tournaments, like the Bubba Cup, named for the Seekinses' dog.

"We bought the house because it had a pickleball court," April says. The two joke that it was the court that was expensive; the house was free.

The court is even lighted for night games.

"We rarely play past 11 p.m.," Larry says with a serious face. "Even though I enjoy the game, two hours is about it for me."

Friend Becky Warren is a frequent visitor to Larry and April's house for pickleball matches and at the Billings YMCA. Though she has only known the two for about a year, they've taken the time to teach all her children to play the game and are always willing to teach others, she says.

"They're really, really generous with their time," Warren says. "They come to the Y all the time and loan out paddles and bring all the balls."

And while April and Larry bring a spirit of sportsmanship and generosity to the game of pickleball, it doesn't stop either from wanting to win on the court.

"If I can hit an absolutely fabulous shot, right in between Larry's legs, that has made my day," April says. "That's what pickleball is all about. It's like, hey man, I can sleep tonight."

Contact Jasa Santos at jsantos@billingsgazette.com or 657-1241.

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