Pickleball Proved the Ideal Family Sport For the Clarks, and Now the Kids Won a Golden Ticket for Nationals

The Clark kids won their mixed doubles title over the weekend in Macon, Georgia, while their parents took third place.

By Bob Reinert
Red Line Editorial

Pickleball has long been known as a perfect family sport. For proof of this, you need look no further than the Clarks of Inlet Beach, Florida.

The young Clark family — Jonathan and Marilyn, as well as their 9-year-old son Marshall and 7-year-old daughter Laine — have bonded on the court over the past couple years.

“It’s a treat to be able to step away and play pickleball and be together,” said 40-year-old Marilyn. “I hope it is an encouragement for other people to put a paddle in their kids’ hands or encourage some children to try it out. They catch on really quickly, and they have a lot of fun. I don’t think we’re a novelty. It’s just a hobby and a sport that appeals to everyone, and everyone can play, which is the coolest.”

Marilyn and Jonathan, now 41, both played tennis at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, graduating in 2006.

“We … kind of got burned out on tennis afterwards,” Marilyn recalled. “Jonathan taught a little tennis after college.”

Jonathan was the first Clark to start playing pickleball two years ago. Marshall followed his dad’s lead. Marilyn and Laine weren’t far behind.

“It’s been so fun, I mean, so, so unexpected,” Marilyn said. “Never imagined learning a new sport nearing age 40 and actually competing and traveling and doing pretty well. It’s a great hobby for us.”

At last weekend’s UTR Sports Macon Open Golden Ticket tournament presented by HearingLife in Macon, Georgia, Marshall and Laine won their mixed doubles division to earn a spot in the 2024 Biofreeze USA Pickleball National Championships set for Nov. 10-17 in Mesa, Arizona.

“They played well,” Marilyn said. “It was their first time playing together. Our daughter just started. She’s just kind of getting into it. (Marshall is) not much into playing with girls, but they did great together.”

Marilyn and Jonathan took a bronze medal in their mixed doubles competition.

“It was great,” she said. “We had a lot of fun. It was our first UTR pickleball event. It was really well run. Really good competition.”

Pickleball has provided Marilyn and Jonathan with a court rebirth of sorts.

“It’s been super fun,” she said. “It’s nice to use the skill and talent after a lot of years on the court to play a new sport. For all of us to be together is just like icing on the cake.

“We grew up playing junior tennis. We’ve spent most of our life on a tennis court, so now it’s refreshing to be on a pickleball court. We have a lot of the same skills we can carry over.”

Marilyn said that the family loves being part of the pickleball community.

“So many of our friends from junior tennis and college tennis are playing pickleball,” she said. “It’s kind of like the ‘after party’ of college tennis and like the whole tennis world. It’s been super fun to reconnect with a lot of people and meet new players who played (tennis) in college and are kind of like us, taking it up mid-life or in our 30s and 40s.

“It’s such a great community to be a part of and a really healthy environment, and people are so encouraging all around. It’s super safe. It’s great.”

Time spent together by the Clarks on the pickleball court pays dividends off it, as well.

“Being able to translate those lessons off the court with their learning into regular life is great,” Marilyn said of their children. “They’ve just met so many people that are so gracious and kind and (picked up) a lot of skills that they wouldn’t learn otherwise.

“We don’t really teach them a whole lot. They just kind of pick it up from watching. We keep it really fun and really light and easy, over instruction and competition and all of that. Trying to keep it pretty simple.”

At home in the Florida Panhandle, pickleball courts are at a premium as the sport gains in popularity.

“It’s exciting to see the growth and what’s to come because it’s extremely new,” Marilyn said. “People are excited. They want to be out there, and the courts are full. It’s an exciting time, for sure.”

Does Marilyn anticipate the family playing pickleball together for years to come?

“I hope so,” she said. “As long as everyone’s having fun and wants to continue playing, we’ll keep on keeping on.”

Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to USA Pickleball on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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*article is courtesy of USA Pickleball