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WHERE ARE THEY NOW?          January 2009

Littlewood Instrumental in Pioneering New Sport Now

By Lacy Lee Baker

Mary Littlewood, former Arizona State head coach who was inducted into the NFCA Hall of Fame in 1995, is considered one of the pioneers of women’s collegiate softball. Today, more than 40 years since she started her Sun Devil career, Littlewood is on the ground floor of another sport — pickleball. At 75 years old, Littlewood has become the Arizona Johnny Appleseed for the sport that seniors are embracing throughout the U.S.


It’s been almost 20 years since you retired from Arizona State, and 10 years since you wrote the book, “Women’s Fastpitch Softball — The Path To The Gold.” What have you been doing since?


It’s been really exciting. I’m involved in a booming sport for seniors called pickleball. It’s really a great sport for older people since it’s a lot easier on your body, especially the knees and hips. It’s played on a badminton court with the net lowered to 34 inches at the center. You use a perforated plastic baseball (similar to a whiffle ball) and wood, composite or graphite paddles. A match is two of three games, and you play to 11 points in a game; only the serving team or player can score.


It was invented in 1965, but it’s really seen its largest growth within the last 10 years, with national and state tournaments and ambassadors for each state. Retirement communities are adding pickleball courts all over the country. For example, the Villages down in Florida has 100 pickleball courts for its residents.


How are you involved with the game?


First of all, I play, mostly doubles and mixed doubles and have been fortunate to win gold medals and silver medals at many events, including the Arizona Senior Olympics and the Huntsman World Senior Games in Utah. My friend Sandy and I also have our own web blog for pickleball, which can be found at www.pickleballsuccess.com. The site includes instructional articles, pickleball news, listings of camps and clinics and more. In addition, we’ve written two books on the game and sell them through our business, Pickleball Enterprises: “Drilling for Success in Pickleball” and “Teaching for Success in Pickleball.”


Do you think your coaching days prepared you for this level of involvement?


Absolutely. Once a teacher, always a teacher, and once a coach, always a coach. It’s such a new sport that a lot can be done. It’s really fun.


From a playing standpoint, what have you gotten out of it?


It’s been a way for me to stay physically active. I’ve had some problems with my neck and upper back, and it’s the type of sport that doesn’t take a toll on your body. I usually play three to five times a week, and usually a match is 45 minutes. I don’t push it, and I can be competitive with 50- to 55-year-old players. I’ve had both knees replaced, so I’m careful about not overdoing it.

What’s been exciting to see is the involvement of women who previously had not played a sport. They never thought of themselves as athletes, but here they are competing. It makes them feel good physically and emotionally.


For me personally, it’s been a lot of fun since I don’t feel old. Often times at a tournament, people will say, “There’s no way you can be that old.” Playing the game is so good for me in so many ways. And, I know other seniors feel the same way. They can be 60, 70 or 80, but when they play and succeed, they feel like they are five years old.


Where do you see the most growth in the sport?


It’s usually in the states where there’s a large retirement population .... Florida with the Villages and the Arizona Sun City properties. There are probably 2,000 players at the three Sun City locations. They also are starting to play in Tucson; we recently did a clinic there and had 60 players. Sandy and I were involved in bringing the sport to Show Low, Arizona, and Pinetop, Arizona.


Do you see a lot of tennis players converting to the sport?


Some of the best pickleball players are former tennis players. Because pickleball is much easier on the body — knees, hips and elbows — they’re converting to this new game. You usually can tell if the player previously played tennis, since they have a longer stroke. The longer tennis stroke can be a hindrance in pickleball, since ideally you want a shorter backswing.


You can play pickleball on a tennis court by shortening the playing area by marking with chalk. However, I’ve found that tennis associations get very upset if you mark up their court. They seem to be threatened by this new sport, and even though all their courts are not being used, they won’t give up any for pickleball. This has been a battle.


So, when you aren’t involved in your new sport, what keeps you busy?


I play a little golf, and I try to support Clint’s program (Clint Myers, current ASU head coach) as much as I can. I've worked with Clint in recognizing some of the former players, and I've been very pleased with what he's doing at ASU. He's very appreciative of the history of the game.


Is there any advice you would like to give to the coaches of today?


The game has changed so much, with the rules, equipment and the advantages teams and players have today. My message would be to appreciate the past and what it’s taken for the sport to be where it is today.