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Updated by Jackie Gilligan March 12, 2017 (email@example.com)
He’s a Mess!
We call him Pickleball Ken. He’s an ambassador for the sport and he takes the job seriously, working tirelessly to keep everything running smoothly so that the rest of us can just show up and play. Although we rarely show it, we really do appreciate all his work because we know that without him we probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to participate in this wonderful sport. I’s my privilege to call Ken a friend and to tell you a little about him.
Ken Marquardt has lived in Colorado for 50 years. In high school he played tennis and baseball and was good enough to earn a tennis scholarship. He later became a serious racquetball competitor. About 30 years ago, health problems made it impossible for him to continue to play any sport. A life-long struggle with asthma and the prednisone treatments for it left him with severe lung and bone problems. He fractured an ankle, had both shoulders replaced and had knee surgery. He also survived cancer in 1979 and flesh-eating disease in 2000. Ken rarely talks about his health issues, other than to say “I’m a mess” but he consented to my writing about in the hopes that others would be encouraged by the story.
In 2010, an email from a high school classmate suggested he check out pickleball. Hoping to find a sport he could play, he went to the Lakewood Rec center, the only place in the area that offered pickleball, thanks to Chris Beal who started their program. Ken was immediately hooked. He now plays several times a week, mostly at the Apex and Westminster Rec centers. It has allowed him to reach a personal goal of better health, but we all know that what he loves most is the opportunity to compete again. There’s nothing like the joy of playing a game you love.
When Ken gets interested in a project he goes all in. It wasn’t enough that playing pickleball was improving HIS life. He realized that others could benefit from the sport and he wanted to “pay it forward”. On the web sit of the United States of America Pickleball Association he learned about becoming an ambassador, a volunteer position for those who want to help others get involved in the sport. He quickly qualified and began spreading the good word about pickleball to anyone who would listen. He even tried to recruit the doctors and nurses when he was in the hospital recently.
His primary responsibility as an ambassador is to be a representative and spokesperson for USAPA activities in the Denver Metro North area. In September of 2010, he began his work by asking the Westminster Rec center for court time and helping them to get the necessary equipment. Only two people showed up for that first game. Since then he has helped to start programs at other rec centers including Arvada and Louisville. He also helps players who are interested in starting pickleball in the neighborhoods, such as Stratford Lakes in Westminster. He constantly works to find new opportunities for people to play. His success is evident. In less than two years the pickleball community in the north area has grown to more than 435 players.
I remember walking into the Broomfield Rec center after reading about something called pickleball in a local flyer. I was nervous, being 68 years old, never having played a racquet sport and not being in great shape. I was desperate to find a physical activity that I enjoyed enough to get me off the couch. My treadmill didn’t seem to work, maybe because I rarely used it. I was very lucky because Ken was there and immediately made a wise crack, handed me a paddle and encouraged me during my first games. Did I mention he has a great personality? I left that day in love with the game. I now play several times a week and enjoy a healthier, happier life because of it. I’ve met wonderful people on the courts. I always say that the main reason I play the game is for the laughs.
My experience is not unique. Ken keeps in contact with the players through email and encourages them to share their personal stories about what pickleball means to them. The numerous responses have been inspiring to say the least. Many, like Ken, are struggling with health problems and they credit pickleball with changing their lives.
Kens always thinking of new ways to promote the sport. He was able to bring in Steve Wong, a nationally recognized pro from Arizona, who put on clinics that helped both new and experienced players improve their skills. He looks forward to a time when there will be a facility in the area that offers lessons, tournaments and more opportunities to play.
If you decide to try the game, I hope you’re lucky enough to run into Pickleball Ken. He and this wonderful game just might change your life. I should warn you - if you’re thinking about trying pickleball, be careful. It’s totally addictive.
Member of the Pickleball Ken Fan Club
The 9 Lives of Pickleball Ken
By Jane Cracraft Noah
Ken Marquardt heard about the game in 2010 when there was only one place to play in Denver. Today there are 37. Ken started the program at 17 of those locations. As the Denver Metro Area North Pickleball Ambassador, he has introduced more than 2,000 Colorado players to the game in four years. .
Pickleball Ken tries to greet every new player and collect the person’s name, telephone number and e-mail address for his master list. When he sees them on the court, he can’t remember names, so he calls all the women “Sweetheart” and the men “Podner.”
His less-than-modest goal is “to get everybody playing this great game of Pickleball,” including the young, the old, disabled veterans, those in wheelchairs, the 18 players he knows with Parkinson’s disease, another group with Multiple Sclerosis and Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He urges joint replacement patients to give it a try. Ken has two total shoulder replacements and a total knee replacement.
“Everybody has a story,” he said.
From his infancy in 1940 in Kansas, Ken was afflicted with severe asthma and other ailments. He’s been on the steroid Prednisone for 55 years. Long term use caused lung and bone problems, leading to the joint replacements, a broken ankle and severe back trouble. Over the years, Ken has lost 5.5 inches in height. He jokes about being “a shrimp.” In 1979 he recovered from lymph node cancer and in 2000 from flesh-eating disease. But, like the proverbial cat that always lands on its feet, Ken has survived one crisis after another.
In his teens, Ken played tennis and baseball. He earned a tennis scholarship for college. Later he was a serious racquetball competitor. He was forced to give up all sports during his 40s because of his health problems. At age 70 he tried Pickleball and experienced the joy of finding a sport that he could play. After about a year, he and his partner took first place in the Colorado Senior Games. They repeated the next year.
While Pickleball Ken established the game at numerous recreation centers around Denver, he focused his attention on suburban Arvada’s Apex Park & Recreation District where it could grow. The first sessions in 2011 drew a handful of players on two indoor courts. By 2014 Apex was providing six indoor courts and 16 specially designed, lighted, free outdoor courts with a picnic pavilion and restrooms. This project will be the legacy of Pickleball Ken and the Apex District’s executive director, Mike Miles, who learned to play and then took the lead to find available park land and funding from various sources for the outdoor facility.
Every morning when Ken walks through the outdoor complex to watch dozens of players serving, volleying, and chasing loose balls, he knows which ones struggle with family problems or disabilities. And here they are - outdoors, playing a lively game and laughing with friends. “It warms your heart,” he said. “How else could you touch so many lives and make them better?”
Nothing in Ken’s working career suggests that he would become a Pickleball guru. He started out as a stereotyper in the production department of newspapers in Topeka, Kansas, Colorado Springs and Denver. On the side, he developed his skills as a salesman and entrepreneur to sell franchises for a network of trade exchanges, where corporations and individuals ranging from attorneys to auto mechanics would barter for goods and services. He also started business ventures to sell insurance and provide credit to young college students.
Semi-retired now, Ken is still a workaholic. His wife Sharon believes that if he didn’t have Pickleball he’d probably overwork himself on projects around their 10-acre rural property. Sharon said, “I think this is one of the best things that could happen to him at this age. The social aspect of it is good for him. He’s met so many interesting people.
Ken has a soft spot for the handicapped and military and people with health problems, because he has those too. He would love to have everyone in the world playing Pickleball.”
Ken and Sharon Marquardt have hosted a Pickleball Social each year. There were 38 guests on their front porch in 2010 and more than 250 at their picnic grounds in 2014.
When Ken was a newcomer to the game, he encountered players who didn’t want anything to do with a beginner. They would play only with their friends, at their own level. He calls them “selfish.”
His philosophy is entirely different. He has worked hard to create a friendly Pickleball culture. Twice a week there are “Skills and Drills” sessions to help people learn the game quickly. He made name tags for the first 500 players to assist them in getting acquainted. Eventually other people started making Pickleball paddle-shaped name tags to give or sell inexpensively to fellow players.
Most of his players don’t have regular partners unless they are preparing for a tournament. The usual routine is to wait on the bench to rotate into the next game. If the courts aren’t too crowded, the two winners stay on the court but divide and two newcomers enter the game, one on each side of the net.
In Ken’s Pickleball community there is a “caring hearts” group whose members remain anonymous. They’ve driven people in failing health to the hospital; they’ve delivered hot meals; they’ve provided sympathy cards and hospital or home visits to players going through a personal tragedy.
Pickleball Ken has some suggestions from other enthusiasts who would like to start a program.
· Promote it everywhere. (He posted “Players Wanted for Pickleball” flyers at gyms and passed flyers out on the street. As soon as the program started to grow, he arranged for newspaper and TV publicity.)
· Greet each newcomer personally.
· Get these new players into a game the first time they show up at the courts.
· Provide free equipment for use by the beginners or anyone who can’t afford to buy a paddle.
· Encourage a friendly and supportive atmosphere where everyone feels welcome.
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“Pickleball Ken Marquardt
Denver Metro Area
Back on the courts!!!!
A Vision of the Future of Pickleball
By Jane Cracraft Noah
The second annual “Pickleball for Heroes Tournament” in September 2016 raised $70,007 in participation fees, paddle sales, and donations. That’s an impressive increase over the first year total of $43,861. All of the funds are being donated to Operation Freedom, a traumatic brain injury charity based in Colorado Springs.
The fund raising success is one more example of the dedication and enthusiasm of “Pickleball Ken” Marquardt who has signed up 3,277 Colorado players to learn the recreational sport of Pickleball. Just 298 of them played in the 2016 tournament although many more came to watch or volunteer for the activity.
Ken noted that much of the national publicity for Pickleball has been focused on big tournaments and highly competitive players, but those are only 7/10ths of one percent of the 25 million Americans playing Pickleball today. The majority aren’t great athletes. They’re people who are staying active and having fun.
“That other 99.3 per cent are the ‘can do’ people instead of ‘can’t do’ people. Regardless of their age and their health challenges, they got off the couch.” Five years ago, Ken was emphasizing the importance of exercise and socialization for older players. Now he’s also excited to see young families learning the game, since it’s good for all ages.
Pickleball was started in Denver high schools this year. Clinics for kids 7 – 14 were popular in Arvada during the summer. He sees 30- and 40-year old players flock to the lighted courts on summer nights. He said it makes him feel good to see “the future of pickleball” here.
“And where else can a 76-year-old guy play with his kids and grandkids and beat them all?” he asks with a grin.
Ken Marquardt has a special affinity for America’s wounded warriors who are struggling to overcome traumatic brain injuries. Their problems may include painful headaches, speech deficiencies, memory lapses, muscle weakness and problems of coordination, not to mention depression and other emotional problems. As a former college athlete who has battled debilitating medical conditions his entire life, Ken can relate to the individuals who have to work hard to overcome their challenges. He appreciates the strength that comes from a sense of community due to family, friends and other associations – like Pickleball.
“If it weren’t for my wife, and Pickleball, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said, as he sat at one of the shaded picnic tables in Arvada’s Heroes Park, 82nd and Simms St. Ken stops by the courts a couple of times each day. Through the summer he often found every court in use. He has seen the program grow from the first two courts that he marked off with tape on a gym floor inside the Apex Recreation Center in 2010 to six indoor courts there, the 24 outdoor courts, and more in Westminster and other recreational facilities around the Denver area.
The Pickleball program was well established in 2014 when yet another health crisis took over Ken’s life. Severe and unrelenting pain required a major, risky operation to implant two 18” rods, two 9” rods and two 7” rods in his back. The surgery took 12 hours. He was in Presbyterian St. Luke’s Hospital for three and a half weeks and was making progress until a fall in the bathroom left him with a concussion, a brain injury, the need for speech therapy and a longer stay.
Not long after he made it back to his Arvada home, complications from a chronic heart problem and medication led to a low blood pressure of 58/43 (120/80 is normal) and an ambulance trip to St. Anthony’s Emergency Room, followed by three more hospital nights.
During his hospital stays, Ken’s wife Sharon hovered by his bedside and kept their home and family affairs in order while volunteers took over the Pickleball program. The leaders were Tom Carney at the indoor Apex Recreation Center and Mike Leeper for the outdoor courts.
As soon as Ken could look at his hospitalizations in the rear-view mirror, he and Mike Miles, then the manager of the Apex Parks and Recreation District, started planning for the first Pickleball for Heroes Tournament. The last set of 8 new courts needed to be constructed. The Heroes Park rock garden was finished with 1,200 plants, and it has been recognized as one of the best xeriscape gardens in Colorado. Ken said the entire facility represents an investment of $1.7 million, with no tax increase, but significant contributions from private fundraising and the Colorado lottery fund that supports parks and recreation.
In advance of the 2016 tournament, Pro-Lite produced 150 paddles featuring a photograph of the eagle statue in Heroes Park. Opening ceremonies were planned, including speakers from Operation Freedom. Volunteers were lined up to help run the tournament. Right after wrapping up details from the tournament, Ken started thinking about 2017.
For a person whose own future is always in jeopardy because of his health, Pickleball Ken is unrelentingly focused on the future of Pickleball. His passion for this mission is what gets him back on his feet after each setback, and keeps him roaming the courts every day. Numbness in one leg prevents him from getting into the game with his wicked serve, but it doesn’t stop him from kidding, cajoling and coaching everybody else.