David McPhillips, OD ‘85, FAAO, FVI
, likes to talk to his patients, and in doing so, he oftentimes learns something from those conversations. About things like pickleball, for example.
“A patient had been talking to me about this new sport called pickleball and as soon as I heard the name ‘pickleball’ I wasn’t really listening anymore. It seemed kind of silly,” said Dr. McPhillips. “She came back six months later and said ‘C’mon, you’ve got to play this pickleball game. ‘It’s a lot of fun.’ I finally said all right.”
The patient, Barb Matase, who at the time was a local ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association, provided Dr. McPhillips with some lessons and he fell in love with the sport. So much so that since taking it up three years ago, Dr. McPhillips has become a very good player in the greater Philadelphia area and will be competing in the US Open Pickleball Tournament in April 2022 in Naples, Florida, and then in the National Pickleball Championships in May 2022 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
So what is pickleball? It’s a sport that combines many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Using a paddle and a plastic ball with holes, it can be played both indoors and outdoors on a badminton-sized court and a slightly modified tennis net. It’s played as singles or doubles and can be enjoyed by all ages and skill levels. The strategy involves knowing when to hit the ball hard or hit it softly, which is called “dinking.”
According to the USA Pickleball Association, the sport was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle by three dads — Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum — whose kids were bored with their usual summertime activities. There is, however, some dispute on how the game got its name. The USA Pickleball Association reveals that Pritchard’s wife, Joan, started to call the game pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.” But according to McCallum, they named the game after Pritchard’s dog, who was named Pickles and was known to run off with the ball while the game was still being played.
Whatever the origin of its name, the sport has evolved from using original handmade equipment and simple rules to one of the fastest growing sports in the world. According to Dr. McPhillips, there is currently an effort to have pickleball included in the 2026 Olympics.
And, Dr. McPhillips — the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) at Salus University Alumni Association’s Albert Fitch Alumnus of the Year in 2018 — is all-in now on pickleball. He has increased his skill level, playing mostly men’s and mixed doubles in the over-50 age group, and has picked up gold medals at every level, including at the Bucks and Montgomery County senior games as well as at the Pennsylvania state level.
And, he has become an advocate for the sport, now serving as an ambassador himself for the USA Pickleball Association in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and as the pickleball instructor for Horsham Township, Pennsylvania. The sport has indoor and outdoor courts popping up all over southeastern Pennsylvania in Horsham, Upper Dublin, Montgomeryville, Lower Moreland, Warwick, and Doylestown.
“I was terrible when I started,” said Dr. McPhillips, who had played some tennis and racquetball in college but had injured his shoulder to the point where he couldn’t play those sports anymore. “But pickleball has become addictive, like an obsession. It’s a great way to meet people, it’s a great way to exercise and stay in shape. The sport is very social. The word that comes up most often when people talk about pickleball is ‘fun.’”
But, that’s not all. Dr. McPhillips said playing pickleball has helped him in other ways. For 20 years he has been involved with the Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH)
and its mission trips to Haiti, more recently helping establish the first optometry school in that country. But the recent political unrest in Haiti and the travel restrictions from COVID-19 have prevented him from going on those trips for the past couple of years.
“For the past two years, pickleball has helped me divert the energy that I had for those trips and that work into something new and different,” he said. “Plus it’s a healthy activity. I’m definitely in better shape now than I was 15 years ago.”
For now, Dr. McPhillips is sharpening his skills in preparation for the US Open and the national competitions. To qualify for the Open, one has to be a player of a certain level and then be chosen from a lottery to be among more than 2,400 players to compete in the tournament.
“Looking back, I see how I wasn’t good in the beginning, like all of us learning something new, because I didn’t know about the strategies and nuances of the game,” said Dr. McPhillips. “But as you play you get better and right now I’m still trying to improve. I’ve been in a lot of tournaments and thanks to some great doubles partners have won my fair share of them.”
And, he appreciates what pickleball has done for him and others. “I came late to this sport, but it’s so gratifying to see how this sport has changed people’s lives for the better,” he said.