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Heart of Utah: Orem pickleball champion says don’t knock it til you try it

OREM, Utah — A national champion pickleball player is from right here in Orem, Utah, but she was adamant about not even trying the sport until just a couple years ago.

Related: Salt Lake ranks fourth nationally for pickleball — but what is it?

Now Callie Smith helps encourage and train even younger pickleball players in one of the quickest growing sports around.

Smith just won the US Open pro doubles title in Naples, Florida recently, with her doubles partner Catherine Parenteau. And she’s proving while pickleball started as a popular sport among senior citizens, the younger generation drives its growth.

Orem pickleball champ transitioned from tennis

Smith (nee Craig) played tennis for BYU and then the University of Utah from 2010-2014. Her family is full of accomplished tennis players around the state. The Orem resident coached tennis, and she just knew she would not like pickleball.

“I saw these people playing what I found out to be pickle, and I was a typical tennis player and scoffed at it. I thought that was the stupidest sport. Who would even play that,” she laughed. “I was like, I will never be caught dead with a pickleall paddle in my hand.”

Then her grandpa George Snell, whose name is on the pickleball courts in Kaysville, convinced her to join a tournament with him around 3 years ago. USA Pickleball Association coach Mike Nielsen was watching and talked to her, but she still wasn’t that interested.

A date with pickleball

And then she and her husband Kyle tried out the sport on a date. Two people came over and asked to play against them. Callie and Kyle thought for sure they would dominate the game.

“I walked over to my husband and said, look, we’re gonna play them real fast, we’re gonna kill them, and then get back to our date. He goes OK deal,” Smith remembers. “They didn’t look athletic, we were both super in shape, I just got off the Utah tennis team. But we got slaughtered. They had us running all over the place.”

She said she couldn’t even believe she lost. After that, she told herself there must be more to the game than she thought, and that’s what really hooked her. She connected with Nielsen again, and now she plays tournaments all over the country.

When Callie is training or competing, Kyle wrangles their two young children. Sometimes they compete as mixed doubles. He is her number one fan.

From making fun to embracing the fun

This sport is growing fans and players and Smith knows why.

“It’s something new to learn. It’s social, it’s fun. You can smack talk to the other person just right in front of you. It’s like you get to be with your best friends all the time. Some of my best friends that I’ve met are from pickleball,” she said.

She has gone from making fun of the sport, to embracing it.

“It’s something you can compete at, something you can have fun at. People are willing to help you learn the game and improve and get better. And I think it just helps build the community honestly. It’s amazing.”

Growing popularity of pickleball in Utah and beyond

So many people enjoy pickleball now, you can’t get a court in some places in Utah. People will park their cars at four in the morning and shine their headlights onto the pickleball courts in Orem just so they can play. Kids and teens ride their bikes and scooters over to the Kaysville courts to try it out. The Smiths’ five year old daughter has started playing and loves it.

Smith says you can compete with older generations and the younger generations, and there’s no competitive gap.

She now offers pickleball coaching and camps. She has the Paddle Pickleball Academy with a new indoor and outdoor facility in Springville and Farmington going up for programs of all ages.

And if you are still skeptical, Smith says just try it.

“I guess for all the naysayers out there, it’s kind of like when your parents say, hey, have you tried this food? If you haven’t tried it, you can’t say you don’t like it. It’s the same thing. If you haven’t tried pickleball, you can’t say you don’t like it.”

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