Contingent of Foreign and Out-of-State Players Help Enrich Bainbridge’s Founders Tournament

BIHM Founders Tournament logo 2023 - courtesy of Bainbridge Island Historical MuseumChohika “Char” Wannachinda lives in Seattle now, but she was born and raised in Thailand. The 45-year-old marketing director for a Seattle-area senior living firm started playing Pickleball just four and a half months ago, but her game is so advanced that she and a partner finished second in the woman’s 4-5 level doubles competition at the recently completed Founders Tournament at Battle Point this past weekend.

Char, as she prefers to be called, represents a growing contingent of foreign players who are discovering the island’s Pickleball past, and are making plans to play in area tournaments, including our own Founders event. The sport, started on Bainbridge in 1965 by three buddies and their families, has truly gone international. There are roughly 5 million people playing the game (using the familiar laminated paddles and yellow whiffle balls, of course) on courts the world over.

Under mostly blue skies and steamy temperatures (except for last Wednesday, Aug. 9th), some 350 players battled it out in categories ranging from seniors, to men’s, women’s and mixed doubles categories. Aside from a Bainbridge contingent that made up about 25 percent of the field, there were players registered from Hawaii, Maine, Texas, Ohio, South Dakota, Arizona, and Minnesota, and at least five players from Thailand, plus one from Taiwan.

Like lots of Pickleballers, Char is a converted tennis player – a sport she has been playing since she was seven years old. “I’ve played tennis for a long time, but a friend kept trying to convert me for years,” she recalled. “She told me about a guy looking for a partner… I finally said, ‘Okay’. I didn’t know if I was going to be good enough, (but then after she started playing regularly) I was hooked.”

A few months later, she and her male partner won in the 4.0 level at a tournament in Lake Stevens. (Pickleballers are generally rated from 2.0-5.0 based on their performance in making a variety of shots). Then she and a woman friend, Dea Sumantri, herself a Division I tennis player at the University of Washington, signed up to play in the Founders Tournament.

Founders Tournament 2023“She just started playing last year (herself),” Char said of Sumantri. “This was the first time we played together.” The pair did remarkably well considering their lack of experience as partners – taking home a silver medal – and Char demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm for such a slightly built woman.

“Once I decide I’m going to do it,” she said of playing, “I get passionate about it. I run around, I grunt a lot (after striking the ball)… I’m older, but I want to keep playing in the younger division as long as I can.”

Bill Covert, one of the organizers of the Founders Tournament that was produced by the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum in association with Bainbridge Island Pickleball and the Metro Parks District, said players like Char represent a new and emerging spirit of the game.

“The cultural connections were definitely the highlight of the tournament,” he said. “Just talking with the Thai group (during the tournament), they liked it and are talking about coming back.” What’s more, Covert said there were at least 20 Hawaiian players who made the journey to Bainbridge, even though some had to return to the islands following the tragic fires that swept through Maui.

2023 Founders Tournament - 2The tournament itself attracted 509 players, who registered with Pickle Is Great to play but only 350 or so actually put paddle to ball due to a lack of available courts on the island. “That’s a big deal,” Covert says of the more than 500 players interested in the Founders Tournament. “That puts us in the upper echelon of tournaments around the state.”

“Clay (Roberts, one of Bainbridge’s chief Pickleball spokesman) says he is optimistic that we will have six more dedicated courts this time next year,” Covert added.

The tournament, held from Aug. 8-Aug. 13, featured lots of good play, along with food, a beer garden and vendors selling T-shirts and Pickleball memorabilia. Visitors could also take a tour of the First Court located at the south end of the island.

One additional highlight for Covert was chatting it up with Frank Pritchard, the son of one of the game’s co-founders, Joel Pritchard. “I talked to him and, of course, tried to solve the age old question, ‘how did the game get its name’,” Covert recalled, with a grin. “It wasn’t the dog (as legend has it and many books and articles have portrayed). He didn’t exactly say what it was… but he did say either his (Joel’s) wife (Frank’s mom) or someone they knew was a crew member (at the University of Washington) and that (in the crewing world) the extra boat is called the ‘pickle’ boat.” Whether the name derived from that, or not, the mystery still continues.

2023 Founders Tournament image credit Amber Buell Executive Directory of the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum
2023 Founders Tournament image credit Amber Buell Executive Directory of the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum

Meantime, Char said the Bainbridge tournament “was well run and well organized. You can’t top it,” she added. “It’s a round robin (format), so you get to play more games… I love the people on Bainbridge. They were so helpful and so supportive.”

Down the road, Char envisions perhaps some day playing for Thailand in the Olympics or in some other international competition. “Pickleball is growing in Thailand,” she said. “If it becomes more popular, I want to play for my country.”

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