As a warm breeze blows across the Alpine pickleball courts, there is a palpable energy in the air. But it's not just the buzzing excitement from the fast-paced game of pickleball — it's the joy of community, collaboration, and inclusion that truly stands out.
This week, the St. Albert Pickleball Club introduced a pilot project with the Special Olympics to blend the love of sports with community engagement. This initiative, steered by the SAPC — a registered non-profit society that supports the development and growth of the sport throughout St. Albert — has proven to be a unique blend of fun, fitness, and fellowship.
Gary Cheetham, who headed the project, said success was only possible through the hard work of many people, including the club’s board and volunteers.
“Eileen McClean, president of the SAPC, has been extremely supportive of the program, along with our terrific team of coaches,” he said.
With 15 dedicated volunteer coaches from the club and 25 eager athletes, this project wasn't just about mastering the game; it was about fostering new connections and building new relationships.
"Most of the athletes had not heard of pickleball,” Cheetham said. “So, our objective was simply to introduce the sport to them through basic drills and game play … and of course, to have a lot of fun.”
The rewards extend far beyond the courts.
“Pickleball is a very social sport, so the benefits are both physical and emotional well-being,” Cheetham said. “In turn, that helps build community well-being and solidify St. Albert as a great place to live.”
Unlike more mainstream sports —basketball, soccer, and bowling, for instance — pickleball hasn't been part of Special Olympics programming. However, Cheetham said the introduction of the game to Special Olympics athletes is the logical consequence of the game picking up so much steam with the general public.
“Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in North America, so it just made sense to bring this great sport to Special Olympics athletes.”
Tuesday's wrap-up event was the perfect opportunity to witness this collaboration firsthand, as family members were invited to join the athletes and Coun. Shelley Biermanski for a medal presentation.
“It gave us a chance to celebrate our accomplishments this summer and get to know each other a little better,” Cheetham said.
Looking to the future, there's plenty in store and Cheetham is optimistic.
"I fully expect pickleball to be a staple in Special Olympics programming going forward, and I expect the SAPC to continue to be integral to the success of the program,” he said. “Hopefully, in 2024 or 2025, we will be able to branch out and play against other Alberta towns and cities that have added pickleball to their Special Olympics programming."
In a world where collaboration can have a big impact, the union of Pickleball St. Albert and the Special Olympics are an important reminder of what's possible when sportsmanship meets community spirit.