As an avid racquet sports enthusiast, Meryl Otis Kessler was always interested in trying out new sports. A competitive tennis and platform tennis player who competed in leagues in both sports, she had decided to give pickleball a try.
“I had a friend, Leslie Kilgour, who had played pickleball before, and she wanted to learn how to play platform tennis, so we agreed to teach each other the sports. I tried it out, and the rest is history,” said Kessler.
Kessler was immediately hooked on pickleball, and the more she continued playing, the more involved within the sport she got. At a time when there weren’t a lot of pickleball coaches or programs in the area, Kessler completed her certification to become a teaching professional in 2019 to become one of the first certified coaches here on Long Island.
To further this, she parlayed her love of the sport and passion for teaching it into her own company, PopUp Pickleball. She began the company in the beginning of 2020, on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had an open house with about 70 people coming out, from pickleball players to tennis players and more. It was awesome,” Kessler said. “Then COVID shut things down and we couldn’t teach at that facility anymore. But we were able to establish a brand and reputation for PopUp Pickleball and it showed just how passionate this community was.”
During the pandemic, co-founders Kessler and Kilgour would set up an impromptu court in the parking lot of The Harbor Club in Huntington, and people who were out on their daily walks or just looking for an activity to do would stop by and participate. Kessler also provided lessons in that parking lot, and it emphasized the impact pickleball has, from providing a fun sport to help those remain active, but also the social interaction it helps foster.
When things began to open up again, pickleball’s rise continued and recently, Kessler found a primary home for her programming at Eastern Athletic Clubs in Huntington.
“Being able to marry the Eastern Athletic tennis facility with the pickleball programming has helped tremendously,” said Kessler. “It really has become my home. We teach about 150 people of all levels on a weekly basis, and I love watching people who come here for lessons or clinics meet for the first time, and not only continue getting better with each lesson, but also become friends with those they meet here. Working under the direction of Eastern Athletic’s General Manager Alexa Sferrazza and her great team at the club has been perfect.”
This community helped launch the PopUp Pickleball InterClub League which pits teams from various clubs on Long Island against one another, and was and still remains the only pickleball league of its kind on Long Island. Kessler says she modeled the format of the league, which is sponsored by HEAD Penn Pickleball, off of USTA Adult Leagues and Platform Tennis leagues she has played in. There are matches on Monday and Tuesday nights with players traveling all across the Island to represent their respective club or facility.
It’s that community feeling that Kessler admires most about pickleball, and is the main reason we have seen the sport take off the way it has here in our area, as well as across the country. While Kessler has done a great job of taking her passion for the sport and creating a business out of it, she says she could not do it without those around her who have helped the brand get to where it is today, and also recognizing the importance of her role as a woman director.
“It’s a unique opportunity right now to be a woman in sports, and especially one who runs their own programs. I take that seriously, and love being able to mentor other women to become instructors,” she said. “I could not do this alone, people like Leslie Kilgour, Barbara Sachs-Traina, Sharon Ryan and so many others are integral to what we do. When you collaborate and work together with great people, it’s amazing what can happen. It’s the collective passion people have for this game that really ignites it. I have never seen a sport take off like this, and I look forward to doing what I can to continue this growth and enjoyment.”
PopUp Pickleball founders Leslie Kilgour and Meryl Otis Kessler.