12390465083?profile=RESIZE_710xRaul Travieso Jr., founder of the Boca Raton Pickleball Club. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Steve Plunkett

Raul Travieso Jr. may well be Boca Raton’s Mr. Pickleball.

The retired assistant fire chief and Boca High graduate is also a card-carrying “District Ambassador” of the USA Pickleball governing body, a pickleball instructor and founder of the Boca Raton Pickleball Club.

He also has attended and spoken at numerous meetings of the City Council and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District in a quest to have more public courts built.

“I remember when I first spoke to you all back in 2016, eight years ago, I thought you were going to call the paramedics and have me Baker-Acted,” he reminded Beach and Park commissioners at a recent meeting, recalling the novelty of the game back then.

At the time Boca Raton had zero pickleball courts open to the public. Now it has 25 with many more on the way.

The sport was created in 1965 in Bainbridge Island, Washington, where families from the mainland spent summers on the island and their kids got bored with the usual games.

“In the backyard there was a badminton court. And somebody came up with the idea of using a paddle pingpong and just hitting the ball over the net. A Wiffle ball at the time,” Travieso said.

“And so that slowly evolved into, they dropped the net and they made the paddle bigger, and then they got perforated balls with holes in it. And they noticed that not only did it go over the net nicely, but it also bounced. They decided rather than to keep it up in the air like volleyball they’d let it bounce like tennis.”

Pickleball cruised along mostly as a West Coast hobby until about 10 years ago when it migrated east, he said.

About the same time, Travieso was retiring from the Boca Raton Fire Department and having to give up racquetball following a hip replacement. His doctor recommended the new pastime.

“I went to Deerfield where they were playing indoors and immediately fell in love with it,” he recalls. “I actually called my wife. She was out school shopping with my granddaughter. I said Lorraine, you’ve got to come. You’ve got to come over here. I just found my new sport.”

Travieso says interest in the game has exploded for three reasons: “It’s very easy to play, it’s very easy to learn, and it’s also very easy on your body.”
In 2022, USA Pickleball says, 5 million people were playing pickleball regularly. Now the number is close to 9 million. The pandemic helped push the growth, Travieso said.

“People were literally painting lines on streets.”

A pickleball court is one-third the size of a tennis court.

“So, there’s not a lot of running, and almost exclusively doubles play. So, you have really four people playing in a space of a third of a tennis court,” Travieso said.

The first people in Florida to embrace pickleball were, like Travieso, recent retirees.

“Again, easy to play, not tough on your body,” he said. “But now the game has evolved into a much more competitive game. There’s a lot more young people playing.’’

The median age of players is now early 50s, down from about 65 just 10 years ago.

USAPickleball.org has three 3-minute videos that cover the basics. Travieso also gives a first-time player clinic on Wednesdays at Sugar Sand Park, which offers loaner paddles.

“In an hour and a half I have them playing. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

A game takes 15 to 20 minutes. El Rio Park, which opened Boca Raton’s first four outdoor courts in 2022, can have 16 people playing, with 20 to 30 waiting their turns.

“But while you’re waiting, you’re socializing,” he said. “And the games are short, they are only to 11, win by 2.”

Boca Raton also has 15 outdoor courts at Patch Reef Park and six indoor courts before school lets out at Sugar Sand. And plans are afoot to add more at Patch Reef, North Park and the Boca Raton Golf and Racquet Club.

Delray Beach, he said, has 12 outdoor courts, six at the Delray Tennis Center and six at another park, and seven indoor courts that, like Sugar Sand’s, are open only weekday mornings.

The Boca Raton Pickleball Club has 100 members, Travieso said, but is mostly a social group and has hit a standstill because it has to rent courts.

“Delray, for example, they get to use six of their courts to teach, so the city lets them do that. We were never able to do that here. (Our club’s) not dead, but it’s not growing,” he said.

Travieso’s father worked for IBM and the family transferred down from Raleigh, North Carolina, when Raul Jr. was a junior in high school in 1969. He attended the University of Florida for one year, then was drafted in 1972 in the last Vietnam War-era draft and served as an Army medic.

After his two years in the military, “I got a call from the VA saying why don’t you apply for Boca … the Fire Department is starting a paramedic program, you’d be a perfect fit.”

He took the test, got accepted and 39 years later, he retired as an assistant chief.

Pickleball is not Travieso’s only passion. He and Lorraine have four children and 12 grandchildren keeping them busy. He also plays senior softball and occasionally golf. “And I love to ride my bike.”

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