Five years ago, Bonnie Ballentine was looking for a new gym and came across the Manassas Park Community Center. A life-long athlete, she was practicing for the National Senior Games where she would compete in basketball.
She had heard about the fast-growing sport of pickleball through a friend and agreed to set up a program for the Community Center. After starting with four players, the Old Dominion Dinkers are playing up to six days a week with about 50 players.
Pickleball is a paddle sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis. Two or four players use solid paddles made of wood or composite materials to hit a perforated polymer ball, like a Wiffle ball, over a net.
The Dinkers play indoors at the Community Center on basketball courts during the week, and weather permitting, outdoors on tennis courts at Metz Middle School on weekends.
“We have tons of fun and the camaraderie and friendships are great,” Ballentine says. “Our group is caring and welcoming and we cater to all ethnicities, religions and identities. Everyone is treated the same and no one is less than anyone else.”
Ballentine grew up in South Carolina and is a retired physical education teacher. The only sport her high school offered to girls was basketball and she played all four years. She was thrilled to play intramural basketball, volleyball, tennis, softball and field hockey at Winthrop College (now Winthrop University) and graduated in 1966.
She sought out recreation leagues after college and played in the above mentioned sports. After turning 50, she began competing in the National Senior Games. In the upcoming 2019 Games in Albuquerque, she will take on both basketball and pickleball.
Because of their early morning weekday schedule (8 a.m.), the Old Dominion Dinkers draw an older crowd.
“I believe in people being active and keeping busy. If we have a large turnout, we shorten the games so everyone can play,” Ballentine says. “On the weekends, we have been joined by young Mormon missionaries who canvass in the area. Everyone is welcome.”
Last weekend, the Dinkers hosted an in-house tournament for their players. Next year they are hoping to expand it to include outside clubs.
“I won’t tell you that our tournaments aren’t competitive, but they are aimed at our lower level players for them to get the feel of a tournament without getting annihilated,” Ballentine says. “There is lots of chatter and laughter on the courts. Life’s too short not to have a lot of fun.”
Jason Shriner is the marketing manager for the Department of Parks and Recreation, City of Manassas Park. He is coming up on the second anniversary of his marriage to his husband and volunteers with PFLAG in his spare time.
Even though he didn’t consider himself sports-minded, Ballentine talked him into playing pickleball starting in 2016. He found parallels in the sport with other aspects of his life.
“When I started playing, I was taking sign language classes and it immediately felt like a good fit because of the hand-eye coordination,” Shriner says. “I was really stiff at first, but the other players made it easy for me. They didn’t rush me and were very patient.”
Shriner grew up a military brat before his family settled in Woodbridge. He didn’t play sports because they didn’t feel inclusive and says he was a “big gamer” during those years.
While attending Johnson & Wales University, he did give intramural dodgeball a try. Now that he is playing pickleball twice a week, he acknowledges the similarities that it has to gaming.
“It is addictive and there are endorphins from the positive feedback. I love it when I hear the paddle hit the right spot,” Shriner says. “I gravitate towards games with rewards and the pickleball games go really quick — less than 10 minutes.”
Shriner played in the pickleball tournament last weekend and loves that the sport appeals to people of all ages and skill levels. He feels welcome as a member of the LGBT community.
“The Dinkers are cool, energetic and engaged,” Shriner says. “I consider all of them to be allies.”