Students, Faculty and Staff Square Off on Sunday Mornings at Campus Rec Center

Three women tap pickleball paddles together at the net following a game Image by Ed Brennen
Registrar Mai Nguyen, left, and Chancellor Julie Chen tap pickleball paddles with an opponent after a Sunday morning game at the Campus Recreation Center.

By Ed Brennen

Senior business major Brogan Curley was playing basketball with friends at the Campus Recreation Center one Sunday morning earlier this semester when he heard a familiar sound coming from behind the court-dividing curtain at the other end of the gym.

It was the sharp thock! of pickleball paddles hitting perforated plastic balls back and forth. 

Curley, a native of Billerica, Massachusetts, has played pickleball since about 2016 — several years before it caught fire during the pandemic to become the fastest-growing sport in the country. When he peeked around the curtain, he saw more than a dozen faculty and staff members playing spirited games across three courts. 

“I started talking to people, and here we are: I’ve been coming down to play every Sunday since,” Curley said between games in mid-March.

Registrar Mai Nguyen is the unofficial ringleader of the casual Sunday morning drop-in games, which run from 10 a.m. to noon and are open to anyone from the UML community.
A young man lunges to hit a backhand in pickleball while his teammate looks on Image by Ed Brennen
Senior computer science major James Dimino lunges for a backhand while pickleball teammate Karyn Puleo, executive director of facilities business operations, looks on at the Campus Rec Center.

“Once you play, you’re totally addicted,” Nguyen says of the sport, which is like a combination of ping-pong and tennis and is played, two-on-two, on a badminton-size court. “It’s a fun social game that anyone can play, even if you’ve never played sports before. And I like the fact that you can hop on anytime; there’s no hierarchy when you’re first starting. It’s a very open and generous game.”

The Sunday morning games started last summer when Nguyen invited Anita Greenwood, dean emerita of the School of Education, to coach a few clinics for interested players. Greenwood is an avid pickleball player and part of the Newburyport Pickleball organization.

Since then, around 15 to 20 people have been showing up at the Campus Rec Center to play each Sunday. Among the regulars are Chancellor Julie Chen and her spouse, Susu Wong.

“It’s just a great chance to get a little exercise and hang out with folks at the university,” says Chen, who notes that the pickleball court is a place where people can set aside their UML roles for a few hours. “Everybody is just here playing. It’s not like you come wearing a label.”
An overhead view of three pickleball courts set up in a gym Image by Ed Brennen
The Sunday morning drop-in pickleball games, played over three courts at the Campus Rec Center, are open to anyone in the UML community.

Like most of the Sunday morning crowd, Chen had never played the sport before. She’s seen her game get “slightly better” each week. 

“At the beginning, you’re just trying to learn the rules,” she says. “But after a while, you get a better idea of what you’re trying to do. It gets competitive.” 

Curley, who in high school traveled as far away as Indiana for pickleball camps and tournaments, can confirm Chen’s competitiveness.

“She doesn’t take it easy on you,” he says, adding that he never imagined he’d meet so many different people from across the university through pickleball. 

While the sport is most popular with people aged 55 and older, according to USA Pickleball, it is attracting younger players, too. At UML, Campus Recreation hosts tournaments and Wednesday night drop-in games, providing all the necessary equipment for students.
Two women lunge to hit the ball while playing pickleball Image by Ed Brennen
Chancellor Julie Chen and teammate Karyn Puleo both reach for a return during a pickleball game.

Mason Ronn, a junior plastics engineering major from Boylston, Massachusetts, wanted to enter a tournament in February with his roommate but had never played the game before. So he decided to join the Sunday morning games to learn.

“I like being active and exercising without being the most competitive person in the world, so it’s a good fit for me,” says Ronn, who would like to help start a student pickleball club next year (he has a fall co-op job at Apple in California to work around, however).

Brenda Geiger, assistant dean in the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, enjoys playing against students, “although I’m a little jealous of how agile they are,” she says.

“Seeing faculty, staff, administrators and students playing together, and having a good time is nice. I’ve definitely made a lot of friends here, which takes down some of the barriers at work and makes the job a little easier sometimes,” she says. 
A woman hits the ball while her pickleball teammate looks on Image by Ed Brennen
Wendy Hyatt, assistant director of experiential learning and signature programs, returns a serve.

Paula Haines, senior director of curriculum assessment and accreditation, says she feels like “a kid on recess” coming to play every week.

“It’s just joyful. It’s great to watch all these people who work so hard having so much fun,” she says. “Everybody’s got so much going on, so it’s nice to come here, cut loose and pump up our serotonin levels.”

Nguyen, who promotes the game to people whenever she can, is working with Campus Rec to have outdoor pickleball courts lined on the East Campus tennis courts so they can be used for both sports. Her dream is for the city of Lowell to build pickleball courts and create community events around them.

“In Florida and California and Atlanta, they have venues with food trucks, and they build social events around them,” she says. “What’s better than a sport that anyone can play?”