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At 88, Prineville resident Marvin Cunningham can still be seen regularly playing pickleball on the local tennis courts

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Marvin Cunningham plays a shot during a recent pickleball game at the Crook County High School tennis courts. Cunningham, who is 88, attended Crook County High School in 1946 when he was a junior in high school. After working as a club professional racquetball player in St. Helens, Cunningham and his wife moved to Prineville a few years ago. Twice a week, as regular as clockwork, Marvin Cunningham can be seen on the tennis courts at Crook County High School.

However, Cunningham, an 88-year-old former racquetball club professional in St. Helens, isn't playing tennis. The senior citizen is part of a growing group of devoted pickleball players.

"It's kind of fun to get out and get some fresh air, get a little exercise and meet and play with some very nice people," Cunningham said during a break in a recent game. "If you can swat a fly and hit it, and if you can move out of the way of a car that's going to run over you, you can play pickleball."

The game, which has seen a recent surge in popularity, has some similarities to ping pong and some to tennis.

Like ping pong, players may only score while serving. However, the game is played over a tennis net.

A pickleball court is smaller than a tennis court and players must serve underhand. Players hit a whiffle ball with a solid paddle, which can be made of wood, but is now commonly made of a variety of composite materials.

The game has its own peculiarities, which take some time to learn, but virtually anyone can play the game.

Although court space is limited in Prineville, the game has a faithful following.

Players are currently playing at the high school tennis courts, although they have played indoor at the old Crooked River Elementary Gym during the winters and also have played on the Juniper Street tennis courts.

Those courts are currently being renovated. When completed, they will contain six pickleball courts.

"The old courts we used on Juniper Street, they were so bad people were tripping falling into the cracks," Cunningham said "We played all winter, not last winter but the winter before, we played on the Juniper courts and we had to scrape the snow off and put all the clothes we owned on and we had lights there, so we could play at night."

Cunningham said that to become a really good pickleball player takes a lot of practice and skill, however, anyone can play the game regardless of skill level.

"To have fun and enjoy it, you don't have to have a whole lot of skills," he said. "You don't have to be extremely competitive, and in fact you don't want to be because you are playing at a pretty low level. As long as you are playing with people near your own level of efficiency, you can have a lot of fun. It's a great way to get out and get a little exercise."

Although he has played some tennis and lots of racquetball, including tournaments throughout the Western United States, Cunningham is a relative newcomer to pickleball.

"Positioning yourself on a pickleball court is different from positioning yourself on a racquetball court," he said. "But the basics, the swing, the position of your feet and everything it takes to hit the ball properly, comes from racquetball."

While acting as club racquetball professional in St. Helens, he injured his shoulder so badly that he was unable to continue playing.

"I hurt my shoulder so bad I could not even lift a racquet," he said. "My wife and I sat and looked at each other for a couple of weeks and finally we said, this isn't going to get any better, let's get out of here."

Cunningham had attended his junior year of high school at CCHS in 1946. He had fond memories of the community, so it was one of the places they looked at when they decided to move.

"So we started looking for a place to go and I remembered having such a great time here and enjoyed the people, so we came over here and checked it out and my wife fell in love with the place," he said. "So we sold out and we moved."

Two years of cancer treatment and knee replacement surgery on both knees left Cunningham in a weakened state.

And that's when he took up pickleball.

"I'm recovering from a five-year bad stint," he said. "I might get into competitive stuff later, but my legs have not worked for five years, I have got to get them working again. My entire body wasted away during the period of cancer and recovering from the knees so I have a lot of building up to do."

Last Thursday, Cunningham played with five other players at the high school. They used one court and played doubles, with players taking turns sitting on the sideline.

Play continued despite nearby lightning storms.

"Like I said, you don't have to be too smart because as you can see, people are coming out here in a thunderstorm," Cunningham said. "There is a group of 16 or 18 of us who can be depended on to show up in the evenings. We are the evening group, there is another group that shows up in the mornings."

Players can be found on the courts each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m. and again on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 6 p.m.

The two groups tend to have different players although occasionally a player might switch from morning to afternoon or vice versa.

With courts in such short supply, some players from Prineville also travel to Redmond to play the game.

Although adding new courts in Prineville will give players more space to play in, expect court space to still be in high demand.

Both Bend and Redmond are looking at how to add more courts because of the demand, and Prineville seems to be able to fill as many courts as they have available with players.

As far sa Cunningham goes, he said he has no great secret for his ability to still be playing at a relatively high level so late in life. Instead he has a simple philosophy that he has embraced.

"It might be luck," he said. "But my motto is overdo every day. If you are not hurting today, you did not do enough yesterday. No pain, no gain."

In addition to his attitude about participating in athletic activities, Cunningham also had one other tip to live by.

"I have no secret method," he said. "Just don't go out with a bucket list. I have no bucket list. Do it all while you still can. I have done everything that I could afford and wanted to, I haven't left anything out."

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