By Michelle Love

Photos by James and Rachel Culver

Vestavia Hills’ Alli McGill did not grow up with the goal of being a pickleball player, but life has a funny way of making things happen. Fast forward to the Alabama Senior Olympics National Competition this past July, and Alli brought home the gold, bronze and silver medals for playing pickleball.

“It was an amazing thing,” she says. “My goal was to get people more involved in Alabama, so we had a really good group going with us.”

Alli admits she didn’t even know what the sport of pickleball was until a chance phone call roughly four years ago. She was working at Vestavia Methodist Church as the church’s health and wellness recreation director, and someone called to ask if they offered pickleball.

“I was like, ‘What is pickleball?’” Alli says, chuckling. “I did some research, and I thought, ‘Well, that looks like fun.’”

Alli started a pickleball program at the church. From her first time holding a racquet, Alli says she just fell in love with the sport. She quickly jumped into every aspect of it, even becoming a U.S.A. Pickleball Ambassador and getting certified through the Professional Pickleball Registry and the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association.

Alli says she loves the sport so much and loves being able to meet people from all over the globe. She says her ultimate goal is to spread her love of the game. Alli even taught some of the International Olympic Committee members how to play when they were in town for the World Games.

“For me, yes, it is great exercise, but it also is about building community,” Alli says. “I have had the opportunity to play with people around the world. It’s truly become my passion and my outlet and my exercise. Many people say I need an intervention because I love it so much.”

One of the many perks Alli says she loves most about the sport is how it stands out as more of a community-driven sport than tennis or racquetball, for example. Alli says she’s even witnessed some devoted tennis players transition to pickleball once they try it, as they, too, can’t resist the fun of the sport.

“I’ve heard it from so many tennis players,” she says. “Tennis is great, but pickleball is more about the community. We have two Vestavians that have been playing tennis together for 40 years, and now, they play pickleball together. They’ll tell you the same thing: they love the community and the relationships they’ve made.”

While pickleball is growing in the Vestavia Hills community, there are many people who are still unfamiliar with it. Alli says bringing attention to the sport will not only benefit the present Vestavia Hills community, but it will also bring people from surrounding areas to the community to play.

This only adds to building and growing relationships. Alli also says pickleball is a sport any age can play.

“A lot of people believe it’s strictly for the older population, but once the more youthful players engage in it, they absolutely love it,” she says. “We have some youth players who are old enough to barely hold a paddle, learning to play. Then we have people in the National Senior Games who are around 90 years old playing pickleball.”

Alli believes one of the greatest things she’s found playing at the National Senior Games is that multi-generations play.

“I’ve played mixed doubles against a father and daughter, and her grandfather was also participating in the games in another sport,” Alli says. “It’s something any weekend that my family, if they’re all in town together, will get out a net and play. Any age and ability can do it.”

At the National Senior Games, there were 151 athletes from Alabama, ranging across all participating sports. Several medals were brought home, too. Seeing so many people across the wide variety of age brackets play pickleball and represent the state in such a proud way was “truly very special” to Alli.

“Part of what I really enjoyed about the National Senior Games was, the Senior Games start at age 50, and I think the oldest person to compete was 100 years old,” Alli says. “You really have a wide range of special people at these games. This was my first National Senior Games, and the friendships that were made are so special. I have an 84-year-old pickleball player who won three medals while she was there competing. It’s so great to have so many wonderful players representing the senior group.”

Alli recalls that in her first tournament she ever played, she competed against a 13-year-old named, Jorja Johnson, who is now a ranked professional pickleball player.

“I’ve played with a 13-year-old player, an 84-year-old player and all players in between those ages,” Alli says. “I just want to spread my love of the game and show people how special it really is.”

Though the competitive feeling is always there, Alli says players in any competition or in a friendly game of pickleball are there for the camaraderie and the joy of the sport. The pickleball community is so supportive of its members, and the relationships made during the sport are unmatched.

For those curious about the sport, Alli says not to shy away.

“Once you are exposed to it and start playing, you just find that these are your people,” she says. “I think any one of these Vestavia people I play with, they are now lifelong friends. It’s not something we just go play pickleball together and we’re done, we’re like friends and family outside the court.”

Especially in Vestavia Hills, Alli says the community is warm and welcoming, perfect for anyone looking to try something new.

“Other sports can be very competitive and cliquish, and pickleball is not like that,” Alli says. “There’s always going to be someone there to encourage and inspire you to play.”