Happy to be in a PICKLE

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LOREN BENOIT/Press Former wrestler, tennis player and current pickleball national champion Tyson McGuffin, left, gives advice to Dan Panther during a pickleball class Tuesday afternoon at Coeur d’Alene’s PEAK Health and Wellness Center.

Tyson McGuffin’s journey from wrestler to tennis player to pickleball standout began with long car rides from north-central Washington to places like eastern Idaho and central Montana.

His dad, Randy, was his wrestling coach, growing up in Chelan, Wash.

“We’d go to Pocatello, Idaho, or Butte, Mont., for these tournaments, and his rule was, every 200 miles he would throw all his kids on the freeway, and make us run a mile,” Tyson recalled. “I remember being in the van in a sweatsuit, cutting weight, and ... semis are blowing past us.”

McGuffin wrestled all the way through high school at Chelan High, good enough to take fourth at state at 152 pounds as a senior.

When he was 12, he used to tag along on Sundays when his dad would play tennis with some of the other locals.

A few years later, he started taking tennis lessons and “fell in love with” the sport. As a junior in high school, he went to a tennis academy in San Antonio. He ended up winning two state tennis titles at Chelan, and went to state three times in wrestling.

McGuffin considered wrestling in college, but opted to play tennis. His older brother Jay, an All-American wrestler at Boise State, had returned and was the Chelan wrestling coach Tyson’s senior year.

“So I had my older brother just beating the heck out of me my whole senior year,” said Tyson, the youngest of eight children — five boys and two girls.

He played one year of tennis at Scottsdale Community College and one year at Community Colleges of Spokane.

He then got certified by the USPTA, and started teaching tennis. He worked in Houston for about a year and a half, then spent the last five years in Yakima, Wash., as head tennis and then also head pickleball pro at a local club.

McGuffin, 27, moved to Hayden about a month ago, when PEAK Health & Wellness was looking for someone to help grow the sport of pickleball at its clubs in Hayden and Coeur d’Alene.

While living in Yakima, McGuffin was introduced to pickleball by a local tennis player who had blown out his shoulder, and could no longer play tennis.

“He kept bugging me to go to the local YMCA and play,” McGuffin recalled. “And, typical tennis player with my tennis pride, I thought there’s no way I’m going to play that goofy dumb sport. That’s a backyard sport, a beer-drinking league sport.

“Finally I went out there, and kinda fell in love with it,” he said. “Started playing tournaments and, six months later, wouldn’t you know it, started beating guys ranked in the top 10 in the world. And it really started to open up my eyes.”

He picked up a sponsor, Hayden-based Selkirk Sport, and his pickleball career took off.

Last year, at the USA Pickleball nationals, McGuffin took second in open singles. This year, he played a bunch of big tournaments, but ended up losing to the same guy over and over — Ben Johns, 19, of Naples, Fla.

Last month, at nationals in Casa Grande, Ariz., McGuffin again lost to Johns in an age-group singles final. But, a few days later, in the open division final, McGuffin finally beat Johns and won a national title.

“Singles is like survival of the fittest,” McGuffin said. “In most singles tourneys I play anywhere from 7-12 matches in a day.”

Highlights from the national tournament are scheduled to be shown today at 4 p.m. on the CBS Sports Network.

McGuffin has been teaching pickleball for two years. Last June, he came to the area to do a series of pickleball camps sponsored by Selkirk Sport.

He did a camp at Northshire Park in Coeur d’Alene, then a exhibition/social at the Hayden Lake Country Club. Zach Matthews, tennis director at Hayden PEAK, offered McGuffin a job as head tennis and head pickleball pro.

McGuffin teaches tennis and gives private pickleball lessons at the Hayden facility, and does group lessons at the Coeur d’Alene PEAK.

Pickleball is played on a 44x20-foot court, with paddles and plastic balls. Like tennis, the serve must land once in the serving area, and the return must bounce once in the server’s court.

“Pickleball singles is almost identical to tennis,” McGuffin said. “In high-level doubles in pickleball, the game gets slower — when in most sports, the game gets quicker.”

There’s a 7-foot area on each side of the net called the “kitchen” where players can’t enter.

“So you just kinda hover and dink the ball in until somebody pops it up,” McGuffin said.

Then, more often than not, someone on the other team smashes it.

“It’s a goofy little game; the fastest-growing sport in America,” he said. He said 3.5 million people play pickleball; by 2019, it’s expected as many as 7 million will be playing.

Though older people make up most of the pickleball crowd, McGuffin says more younger players are getting involved, particularly at the national level.

“The perception from tennis players is that it’s going to ruin their game,” McGuffin said. “It’s only going to better your hands, better your reaction time.”

He said he’s gotten so into pickleball, he no longer plays tennis — and this from someone who reached a 5.5 level in tennis.

He said his goal in the sport is to improve in doubles — he and his partner, Matt Goebel of Spokane, have finished in the top 10 in tournaments but never made it to the podium.

“In Yakima I started a pickleball program at our indoor tennis facility and all these tennis players just hated me at first,” McGuffin said. “Then about six months later they all started trying it, and three months later, they’re all playing fulltime. And about half of them dropped their tennis membership to play pickleball only.”

In part because there’s less running than in tennis, pickleball players can play longer each day, and more times per week, he said.

What do his tennis friends think of the burdgeoning sport?

“Last year one of my longtime tennis buddies in Yakima, he thought it was the biggest BS sport ever,” McGuffin said. “Finally he picked up a paddle, and I kid you not, he’s been playing about six days a week.

“That is the story of pickleball.”

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