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Two pickleball-loving locals wants the sport to take over Iceland

Arlington’s pickleball community hosted players from Iceland at the Walter Reed Community Center (photo courtesy of Ruth Ellis)

If conquering Arlington wasn’t enough, pickleball is now headed to Iceland thanks to two locals.

This past weekend, Arlington-based pickleball coaches Ruth Ellis and Helen White hosted a group of Icelandic tennis players at the Walter Reed Community Center to kick start a collaboration between Arlington’s pickleball community and Tennishöllin, a tennis club in Kopavógur, Iceland.

In a return volley, Ellis and White are set to head to Kopavógur next month to lead several pickleball workshops for the general public there.

The hope is to start a pickleball craze in Iceland, much like what’s happened here in Arlington.

“So many people I’m meeting have been to Iceland. So, there’s a lot of sport tourism possibilities for a place like Iceland,” Helen White, a leader in Arlington’s pickleball community and a local ambassador for the sport, told ARLnow. “Yes, you want to see the country, but if you’re a pickleball player, you also want to play with local pickleball players.”

The idea for the collaboration with the tennis club in Kopavógur came from Ellis, who was born in Iceland and goes back often to visit family. She’s an avid pickleball player and, while thinking about her next trip home, realized that it could be tough for her to find a game.

I was trying to see if I could play pickleball while I was there, and there’s nobody playing there,” said Ellis, who actually lives in D.C. but plays mostly in Arlington. “There’s no active pickleball scene in Iceland at the moment. To me, that looked like a situation that needed to be remedied.”

While it was popular prior to the pandemic, pickleball has boomed in Arlington in recent years. Courts across the county are often full, with residents asking for more. The Department of Parks and Recreation has dedicated $2 million to build more courts and restripe tennis courts, though it might take some time before those are ready for a match.

However, not everyone loves the game. The sound of the ball hitting the paddle — the infamous pickleball pop — can be loud, so much so that the county shut down a court this summer because the pop sound was annoying the neighbors.

While the game has continued to grow in Arlington and the United States as a whole — with sports stars buying newly-formed professional teams — in Iceland tennis remains the favored paddle sport. But Ellis wants to change that.

She reached out to White, who was game for the project. Then, after emailing “dozens” of Icelanders, Ellis was put in touch with a woman who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Iceland. In turn, that person paired Ellis with the owners of Tennishöllin.

“They’ve agreed to partner with us to host several events in November. And they also, surprisingly agreed to come over here and do a preparatory session, which we did this past Saturday,” said Ellis. “It’s really just wonderful how it’s all working out.”

White and Ellis took their pickleball pupils to the courts at Walter Reed Community Center where they engaged in an afternoon-long coaching session. Quickly, though, it became clear that these were not just regular students.

The group was made up of four people, two sets of mothers and daughters. All four women were very experienced tennis players, including a former champion and a 19-year-old who is considered one of the better players in Iceland today.

“We taught them to play in about an hour. By the second day, they were playing pretty great, highly skilled pickleball,” Ellis said. “I would say the window of opportunity for me to win against them has closed.”

The whole point of this was to teach well-regarded Icelandic tennis players and coaches the sport, so they can share the game with others. It’s about creating a “sustainable model” with “local advocates,” said White, that could grow the sport in Iceland.

There are longer-term goals as well.

“If pickleball is being played in enough countries, ultimately it will become eligible to be in the Olympics,” said Ellis.

And that means, perhaps, one of the young Icelanders that White and Ellis are set to coach next month will become an Olympic gold medalist one day. Of course, there are admittingly personal reasons that Ellis wants pickleball to take over Iceland.

“I just love pickleball. And when I visit my family, I’d like to go play.”

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