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Ottawa pickleball champ brings home gold from US tournament

Matthew Kawamoto has only been playing pickleball for two years, but has already garnered a profile in the growing but obscure sport on the international stage.

Matthew Kawamoto doesn’t know when, but he hopes someday pickleball will become an Olympic sport.

If it does, he may have to make some room on his mantle.

Kawamoto, 22, got involved in the increasingly popular yet obscure sport two years ago and is already a growing force in Canada and on the international stage. On Sunday, he returned to Ottawa from the U.S. Open Pickleball Championship in Naples, Florida, where he won four medals: two golds, a silver and a bronze.

“I did not know how I would fit in with the top-level players,” Kawamoto said on the sidelines of an impromptu game with friends in Nepean on Tuesday. “I just went in, super excited, a little bit nervous… the nerves left me.”

Pickleball is an emerging sport internationally and while there are not many professionals around, competition can be quite stiff, he said. At the U.S. Open, there were over 2,000 participants from 21 countries registered.

He only lost two matches during the championship -- both of which went to Kyle Yates, another 22-year-old pro from Florida.

Kawamoto, who’s studying to teach French as a Second Language and music at uOttawa, was introduced to the sport by his mother in their hometown of Hamilton. He said pickleball is a better match for his physical characteristics than tennis.

“You see all the professional tennis players and they’re huge… being short, I have so much speed, it helps as well,” he said.

“I’ve played tennis, badminton, volleyball, baseball when I was younger, a lot of those skills transfer over (to pickleball),” he added.

Before long, his family stopped playing tennis in favour of pickleball. While he does have a regular competition partner in Montreal, he also played alongside his sister for some matches at the U.S. Open.

Lynn Campbell, vice-president of the Ottawa Pickleball Association, said the sport is rapidly gaining a following in Ottawa.

“I think a couple of years ago, when I heard of it, I thought ‘this is strange, let me find out more about it,’” she said. “Now when I go into coffee shops my ears are listening to side conversations and (I’m hearing) people are often talking about it.”

Pickleball is played close together in doubles on a badminton-sized court with a low net. Instead of racquets, players use paddles to hit a holed ball similar to Wiffle ball.

For Ottawa pickleballers, Kawamoto is somewhat of an icon, she said.

“The perception then, in some areas, is it’s mostly for retired people,” Campbell said. “But here we have a 22-year-old… he is our star player.”

Indeed, when he returned to the Ottawa Airport on Sunday night with his medals from the competitions, he was surprised to be welcomed by members of the Ottawa Pickleball Association – he had been expected a quiet greeting from a sibling and then a ride home.

“I get out onto the escalator… and I see a whole crowd of people with signs and I say ‘oh, well I wonder who they’re here for’,” Kawamoto said. “Then I realized I was on those signs. It was a huge surprise, I was super excited.”

Kawamoto said he plans to continue his studies to become a teacher, while also working towards new heights in professional pickleball.

“I know where I stand, I know what I have to work on,” he said.




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About the Author: Devyn Barrie

Devyn Barrie is an Ottawa journalist.
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