‘Literally anybody can play’: pickleball group takes “new” sport to Iceland

By Lauren Fichten

When Nisarg Shah and his friends took a month-long boys’ trip to Iceland over the summer, they spent their days exploring, eating and embracing the culture—the holy trinity of tourism.

However, the trip wasn’t all hiking and bar hopping. They came to Iceland on a mission: to expose an entire country to a new sport in the hopes that it will eventually qualify for Olympic consideration.

The sport is pickleball, and it’s only “new” to Icelanders because the sport is not commonly played there. Once a retirement community favorite, pickleball is now the fastest-growing sport in America— especially among players under 24.

“Literally anybody can play. It’s super easy to pick up, and there’s now a push to make pickleball an Olympic sport,” Shah said.

In order for pickleball, a combination of tennis, badminton and pingpong, to qualify for Olympic recognition, the sport must meet a set of criteria established by the International Olympic Committee. For one, the sport must be widely practiced by men in at least 75 countries across four continents and also by women in 40 countries across three continents. This goal has not yet been reached.

The Traveling Picklers

Shah, along with Harrison Lewis, Kobe Roseman and Bobby McQueen, set out on a quest to spread the good word of pickleball. The disciples of the sport dubbed themselves “The Traveling Picklers.” 

The Picklers are a product of Morehead-Cain, a competitive merit scholarship program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The group met during the interview process before the start of their first year and remained friends throughout their time at UNC-CH. They were able to secure funding for their pickleball pursuit through the scholarship’s Summer Enrichment Program.

Aside from hosting spontaneous clinics, The Picklers engaged in extensive outreach prior to the trip with the goal of connecting with Iceland-based tennis organizations, IOC members and people from towns along the Icelandic Ring Road. Establishing their presence before entering the country seemed the best course of action but garnering responses proved difficult.

“You get an email from a random kid in a random other country saying a random sport name that you’ve never heard of in your life. That’s an email that a lot of people might just delete and move on,” explained Roseman, a recent graduate of UNC-CH.

Despite the lack of replies, The Picklers moved forward undeterred, becoming more comfortable in an unfamiliar town and setting up camp in the hopes that people’s interests would be piqued.

They hoped word would spread quickly, and according to Roseman, that’s exactly what happened.

Typically, after pitching their nets in a local park, The Picklers began to play in hopes of attracting curious spectators. The group hit the ball back and forth over the net. Guided by small paddles, the plastic balls caught air – and the attention of park-goers.

In one instance, a crowd ranging from pre-teens to adults in their twenties slowly started to abandon whatever they had been playing to gather around The Traveling Picklers, enthralled by the new sport.

Shah estimated that around twenty strangers played for about two hours that day. For him, it felt like a scene out of a movie.

“You’re in a foreign country; you have no idea what you’re doing. You don’t know the local language at all, but somehow, there’s this connection of just inherently everyone is attracted to [the] sport,” Shah said.

Though The Traveling Picklers seemed to have a mammoth objective, it wasn’t entirely unfeasible due, in part, to Iceland’s size. Raleigh’s population alone is larger than that of the entire nation of Iceland. Reykjavik, Iceland, where the group spent most of their time, is home to around a third of the population— a little over 100,000 people.

Playing pickleball and gallivanting across Iceland sounds deceivingly effortless but their crusade was not immune to struggle.

While some of their challenges could have been foreseen– like the fact that the weather in Iceland is generally not conducive to pickleball— other mishaps were less predictable.

Trials along the road

The Picklers arrived in Reykjavik in June, fresh off the red-eye flight from Raleigh. Lugging two thirty-pound nets, around 50 paddles and their luggage into a taxi, they set off to the address of their Airbnb. 

Except they didn’t. Their driver had dropped them off at the wrong location, confused by the spelling of a street name.

After realizing they were in the wrong place— what appeared to be some sort of construction site— they chased the driver down and were met with reassurance that the Airbnb was around the corner. The apartment was not around the corner and neither was their taxi as it drove out of sight.

Unable to hail a cab, there was only one solution.

“We mapped it, and it was like a 1.5-mile walk. And we’re like ‘Alright, we’re just going to kind of have to deal with this,’” Shah said.

With over 60 pounds of equipment in tow, the group accidentally saw all of downtown Reykjavik over the course of an hour and a half. In true Traveling Pickler fashion, they made the best of the situation, absorbing a city exploding with color, bursting with the smell of seafood restaurants and populated by lively tourists, conveniently ignoring the baggage weighing them down.

Occasional hardship, like getting a flat tire on the Icelandic Ring Road, had established itself as an inherent aspect of the trip, and it was best to embrace it.

Aside from the casual goal of introducing an entire nation to an unfamiliar sport, they made time to appreciate Iceland’s culture and acclaimed scenery. 

“I had no idea how many waterfalls we would see, and it’s really just, nature wise, a beautiful place,” Lewis said.

Beyond Iceland

As The Picklers neared the end of their trip, one of its most unexpected moments arrived in the form of an Instagram direct message. 

Ruth Ellis, a retired family doctor living in Washington, D.C., became an avid pickleball player after picking up the sport four years ago. Born in Iceland, Ellis visits the country every few years.

Noting a lack of pickleball opportunities in Iceland, she reached out to The Traveling Picklers after reading a blogpost written by Shah on The Dink, a pickleball platform. 

Upon expressing interest in carrying on the clinics and further exposing the sport, she hopped on Zoom with The Picklers to discuss the details— like obtaining the equipment provided by sponsors. Just like that, the torch was passed.

Ellis has three events scheduled in November alongside the USA Pickleball Ambassador for northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. (Yes, that’s a thing.)

Aside from the motivation to introduce pickleball for the love of the sport, Ellis also wants to see pickleball qualify as an Olympic sport in the near future.

Edited By: Chloe Teachey and Collin Tadlock