August 13, 2022 4 min read 2 Comments
By Ray Glier
CHATTANOOGA__Marne Smith would be an original—a child swimming prodigy, gymnast, collegiate golfer, pro golfer, world traveler, Pickleball maestro, Pickleball ambassador/teacher—except for one thing. She has a twin, Mary, who walks and talks like her sister and hunted medals in athletics just like Marne did. When they were kids they were ranked No. 1 in the state of Virginia in swimming, in different strokes, of course, because you can have two No. 1s in the same house, but not in the same race.
Marne (Mar-nee) and Mary were 1 and 1A. Marne was the kid sister, by all of four minutes.
It’s the next chapter for Marne, 62. She had two knees replaced, one in fall 2021, the other early 2022, and Pickleball medals are going to be hard to come by as a 4.5-rated player. She doesn’t dive for balls, for now, and it takes her a match to get rust knocked off her knees, which can ruin you in a small-field tournament.
Geezer Jock has to write about Marne because I looked out over the Convention Center floor here last Saturday, and all 36 courts were stuffed with players. Some of these people were her students. She has taught Pickleball in Franklin, Tenn., south of Nashville, the last seven years to about 1,500 players.
Marne is part of the groundswell of the sport. You’ve probably heard. Pickleball is a brush fire.
By golf standards (25 million players), Pickleball is still puny at around 5 million in 2021, but golf had a 100-year head start. Dozens of pickleball courts are coming on line every month in the U.S.
“It’s getting people off the couch,” Smith said. “I introduced the game to a man who was 87. It got him moving for two years. He texted me last week and said ‘I gotta stop. I'm turning 90’. He loved that he could play every day.
“That’s what this game is doing around the country.”
The game is also breeding over-the-top middle aged, and older people, people who did not get over-zealousness out of their system in high school and thrive on being combative. We always think it is the kids who are influenced by pro athletes behaving badly on TV. Seniors can get sideways, too.
Marne said she went to the net before a match in a major tournament in Arizona and a woman said to her, “Hi, I’m Pain in the Ass.”
“I looked at my sister and said ‘What!’,” Marne said. Instantly, the match became less fun.
But don’t think Marne and Mary are soft. They can get down with people like that and be just as passionate. They got to the gold medal match in a national-caliber match in Arizona (before Marne surgeries) and lost the decisive set 15-13 when a ball crawled along the top of the net and dropped out of reach on their side. The sisters sobbed in each other’s arms, distraught at losing.
“We talked six months ago and Mary said ‘I'm not having fun anymore. I don't want to travel to tournaments. I don't want to pay all that money’,” Marne said. “I told her I was on the same page. We already proved ourselves as good players and we’re never going to be pros. We don’t want to be pros.
“And the people have just gotten so rude at these tournaments. It’s not fair to other players and it is not fair to the sport.”
So they will mostly play locally at well-run tournaments, like the Tennessee Senior Olympics.
Smith said there needs to be a stronger governing association, like the USGA in golf, to stop the meltdowns on the courts. As money pours into the sport and just-win-baby threatens sportsmanship there have to be clear rules on behavior.
“I refereed a match where a man was so rude to his partner, just rude, and I couldn’t do anything about it as far as telling him he was breaking a rule,” Smith said.
Those are the growing pains.
What will really make the sport explode is if the push to make it an Olympic sport succeeds. Marne has traveled around the world—her husband was an executive with Nissan—and she has played Pickleball in Japan and has seen it take off in Taiwan, Korea, Italy, and Portugal. The Olympics, however flawed, still carry a lot of influence and if people see Pickleball inside the Rings, look out.
There is other juice for the sport. Smith said well-known professional athletes in golf and tennis are retiring from their games and picking up Pickleball paddles.
“It is going to help the sport when more of them get involved,” Smith said.
As a kid, Marne was involved in everything because her parents were competitive. Her father played football at the Naval Academy. Her mother, Martha, was a pro golfer out of San Diego. Marne played on a pro mini-tour for several years, but she said, “I wasn’t tough enough. It was ugly in the 90s.”
The only thing common, unimaginative, basic about Marne is her last name. Everything else is bold. She had the idea to introduce Pickleball in a stronghold of golf and tennis, like the area in the shadow of Nashville. It was Smith who convinced Williamson County officials they needed to provide Pickleball to the taxpayers.
Marne insists that teachers of Pickleball need to instruct on three basic strokes and then get out of the way and let students grow their game at their pace.
The serve below the waist. The return of serve. The Dink.
She teaches eight at a time and the students, after a few minutes, just want her to shut up so they can play what has become an intoxicating game.
Smith is just delighted to be able to rejoin the fun after a year of recuperating from knee surgeries. She and her partner, Susan Carson, won the silver medal last weekend in the Tennessee Senior Games (W60-64).
“I have so many medals in a shoebox that it’s not important for me anymore to win tournaments,” Smith said. “Right now, after what I’ve been through the last year with my knees (surgeries), I’m just so happy to be vertical.
“Now, I can really enjoy the game as I get my mobility back. And I want to help it grow and grow."
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