How Pickleball Changed My Life


All it took was picking up a paddle to steer my life in a more hopeful direction

MANDY HARNOY is a HEAD-sponsored player and International Federation of Pickleball ambassador for her native South Africa.

JUST A FEW SHORT years ago, I was depressed, severely overweight, and facing several medical problems. I had almost forgotten how to exercise; I’d tried the gym (many, many times), but it was such a lonely place. I hated the way everyone around me wore headphones, oblivious to the person one machine over, and I’d go once or twice before quitting again. 

I tried running, but it too lacked human interaction, and it was boring to boot. Swimming laps was monotonous and came with a side order of trauma: Not only did you have to put on a bathing suit, you had to be seen in a bathing suit by others. Reason enough to never swim again. I had played tennis competitively, and I knew how fit you had to be to cover a court that size, and I certainly wasn’t anywhere near that level. 

My introduction to pickleball came at a local community center, by way of a friend who begged me to try this funny-named sport. The facility catered to all ages and abilities, and the first time I stepped onto the court, I was made to feel welcome. People were eager to explain the rules and see someone new experience the joy of the game. My four daughters watched with skepticism as I began my journey, convinced this would be yet another exercise I’d start enthusiastically only to give up. But instead, I became addicted. 

I felt an overwhelming wave of relief the moment I picked up a paddle: I had finally found a form of exercise I was going to enjoy. My first time out I played for three hours, and I never wanted the session to end. It was exhilarating; I hadn’t felt that alive in years. 

I paid for it the next morning, when I could barely put one foot in front of the other. I knew that if I wanted to compete seriously, I’d need to move around the court easily and get to more balls—a difficult proposition, given the extra weight I was carrying. I completely changed my diet and played religiously, and the pounds started to fall off. 

Every day, I’d get my fix, not only of volleying, dinking, and smashing, but of that warm, fuzzy feeling of being with friends who quickly felt like family. I met people around my own age, but also much older folks who became like surrogate parents. I played with kids the same age as my own (or even younger); together we drilled, laughed, and got fit. It was the happiest I’d ever been in my life. 

A year into my pickleball-obsessed lifestyle, I went for my annual checkup, and my doctor was amazed to discover I had lost more than 100 pounds—he said if he could bottle what I’d done, he’d be a very rich man. I replied that there was nothing to bottle: Just go play pickleball, and your life will change. 

Mine certainly has. Today I’m a sponsored pickleball player and an ambassador for the game. I’ve won tournaments with my incredible partner, and made friends across the country. And all because of that sport with the funny-sounding name.