Pickleball brings life to Bellingham


More times than not, we don't get a say in how we leave this earth. But if we did, David Tondi would know exactly how he would like to go out.

"I hope I'm on a pickleball court when I finally check out," Tondi said in a phone interview. "With my racket in my hand."

Pickleball, the proverbial "thinking man's game," as the 67-year-old Tondi explained it, is similar in nature to tennis and Ping Pong. Players compete with paddles and a multitude of different types of balls, all in the purpose of outmaneuvering and outwitting their opponents on the other side of the net.

Tondi, who proudly boasts his love and passion for pickleball, proclaiming himself an ambassador of sorts for the game, was all but unaware of its existence eight years ago after moving from Philadelphia to Bellingham.

That was until he was working out at the YMCA one morning, and he happened to catch a glance at a group of guys getting after it in the gym. Only thing was, he couldn't quite tell what they were playing.

"I kept on looking and watching," Tondi said of the four guys playing pickleball. "I was on a machine, and I positioned where I was working out so I could look in the gym and watch the game. And then I would walk in and get a drink, and they said, 'You want to play?'"

Tondi took to the game like a bear to honey, with one facet particularly captivating his interest.

"It's like Ping Pong on steroids," he said.

He can't get enough of the game eight years removed, and playing four times a week still remains three less than he would like.

But alas, it must do, and Tondi continually looks forward to meeting his fellow pickleballers every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Cornwall Park off Meridian to compete in some friendly competition.

Bellingham local Ron Wheeler loosely organizes the gatherings, meaning he takes down the names of anyone new who shows up and calls it good. Structure, as he said, isn't really his thing, and at 82 years old, who's to blame him.

"It's completely disorganized," he said with a laugh. "There is no organization. You just show up."

For someone like Tondi, every moment playing pickleball is precious. Not only has he grown to love it in a way few do, but it means life for him.

In 2003, Tondi suffered a heart attack at 57 years old. He was by no means an old man ready to bid farewell. The game of pickleball has given him, in essence, a new life to live.

"I tried to burn the cable at both ends," he said of a life plagued by stress, made worse by smoking. "But it relieves stress for me. When I'm on the court, all I am thinking about is playing the game, and trying to win.

"I feel good doing it, and it's heart healthy."

Tondi acknowledges that his recent run of good health and even better checkups with his doctor are not solely dependent on his playing pickleball, but he does realize it is a fundamental piece to the equation.

While Tondi has reaped the benefits of the sport by being physically active, there is a competitive side to the game, too, one he stokes every time he plays.

"I don't pitter-patter the ball back and forth," he said. "I appreciate a good game, even when I lose. I appreciate the slamming the ball, and the dink points."

Wheeler, who loosely organizes the event, takes a bit of a different approach than Tondi.

"Here, it is all fun," he said. "I don't need to be competitive. The good thing is that everybody is welcome."

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