County boasts two national pickleball champs

Ruiz, Barksdale part of blossoming local interest in racket sport

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter



Interest in pickleball picking up

The Columbia River Pickleball Club had 141 active members at the start of 2014, 90 of them Clark County residents, according to Mike Wolfe, the club’s president.

The club’s second Pickle Barrel Classic tournament had 168 participants in 2013, representing five states. The men’s singles championship match featured both finalists from the national championships, with Enrique Ruiz of Washougal defeating Wes Gabrielsen from McMinnville, Ore., on both occasions.

There are regularly pickleball programs at Firstenburg Community Center and at Club Green Meadows.

More information about pickleball is available at the Columbia River Pickle Ball Club website.

— Paul Danzer

The rat-a-tat-tat sound of plastic balls flying from paddle to paddle reverberates around the Club Green Meadows gym as addicts get their fix.

It is pickleball night at Club Green Meadows, where accomplished athletes are joined by racquet sports rookies for a few hours of reflex-challenging fun. In the middle of the action are a pair of national champions.

In November, Enrique Ruiz of Washougal and Christine Barksdale of Vancouver won championships at the USA Pickleball Association 2013 national tournament in Buckeye, Ariz.

Ruiz won the men’s open singles national title for a second time. He has twice won doubles open national titles. Barksdale won the singles title for women 35 and older, and the mixed doubles championship for players 19 and older.

As those results indicate, Ruiz and Barksdale are above-average players. But they are not above playing with newcomers and players of all ages at any opportunity.

“It’s very addicting,” Barksdale said. “It is relatively easy to pick up and play and have fun with.”

Such accessibility is part of the charm of a sport that dates to the mid-1960s, when the family of former Washington Congressman Joel Pritchard invented the game at its Bainbridge Island home. The game is fast-paced enough to challenge athletes in their prime but simple enough to entertain players young and old.

Ruiz and Barksdale came to pickleball with some racket-sport pedigree. Ruiz played competitive table tennis for six years and once took on a top-rated American at a tournament in Portland.

Barksdale started playing tennis as a 6-year-old in Indiana. In 2006, she was part of a women’s team from Vancouver Tennis Center that won a United States Tennis Association national tournament.

She hasn’t thrown away her tennis racket but admits pickleball has taken on a larger role in her life. She plays whenever she can and has traveled to invitational and open tournaments.

The social aspect of tournaments — even the nationals — made a quick impression on Barksdale.

“The people are super nice and super social,” she said. “So the people drew me to it.”

Even the most competitive players embrace the social side of the game. At the national tournament, Barksdale said, “people want to win, but they’re out there having a good time, and it’s a friendly atmosphere.”

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Barksdale, Ruiz: County boasts two national pickleball champs

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With prize-money tournaments popping up, the competition is gaining intensity, Ruiz said. In addition to his national championship, he partnered with Gigi Lemaster from Arizona to win mixed doubles at the Tournament of Champions in Ogden, Utah.

Ruiz and Barksdale both said previous racket-sport experience helps their pickleball prowess.

“You already know a good solid stroke,” Barksdale said. The overhead shots in pickleball are most similar to tennis, while the dink shots and backhand stroke offer different challenges.

Ruiz was introduced to pickleball shortly after time commitments forced him to give up competitive table tennis.

Ruiz said the focus and reflexes needed to succeed in table tennis translate well to pickleball, highlighted by the quick rallies across the net.

“The rallies are so much fun,” Ruiz said. “I really enjoy that aspect of the sport.”

With a smile, Barksdale noted that Ruiz’s opponents might not share his enthusiasm for close-quarters back and forth.

That’s because Ruiz is something of a two-handed monster. Part of his success is tied to his ability to flip his paddle from hand to hand so he is almost always using a forehand swing. This ambidexterity increases the amount of ground Ruiz can cover.

“No. 1, my backhand is so bad. No. 2, my reach advantage is huge,” Ruiz said, smiling as he explains why he started playing with each hand.

Ruiz, who has lived in Clark County for a dozen years, is a humble champion who credits his partners for his doubles success.

“It helps to be lucky,” he said. “Sometimes the wind just blows the right way.”

The wind seems to be picking up behind the pickleball movement. While that is especially true in warm-weather states such as Arizona and Florida, Ruiz emphasized that the sport’s growth isn’t limited to retirement communities.

“Pickleball is for all ages,” Ruiz said. “It’s got a funny name, but it’s a sport that is challenging.”

Enrique Ruiz, Christine Barksdale

A profile of two local pickleball national champions, Enrique Ruiz and Christine Barksdale.