Pickleball by the Bay: An Interview with Pickleball Ambassador Jo Bawiec

When Jo Bawiec moved to Cape Charles with her partner, Lori Smith, in 2019, it seemed that hardly anyone in town had heard of pickleball. The pair had fallen hard for the sport while living in Richmond, and they were determined to bring pickleball to their new hometown. Three years later, Jo and Lori have embraced the role of Cape Charles’ pickleball ambassadors, teaching clinics, hosting leagues, and running a Facebook group with more than 300 members.

If you’ve managed to miss the nationwide buzz surrounding pickleball, it’s an addictive sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong. It’s played with a paddle and a plastic ball with holes, and can be played as doubles or singles. “What I love about pickleball is the social and competitive aspects of the sport,” Jo says. “It’s fun, it’s fast, and a great way to meet other people. You don’t have to be a strong athlete to play. Someone could learn to play pickleball in about 30 minutes and have fun… We have grandparents playing with their grandchildren — How great is that?”

Early on, Jo, Lori, and Debi Facciolli, another Cape Charles pickleball player, started offering pickleball lessons in the hopes of increasing local interest. “At the time, a town official shrugged off the idea of pickleball, saying that we’d probably have the same three people,” Jo laughs. “Well, fortunately, that was very wrong.

“I think our first group had about 12 people in it,” she adds. “Through the last few years, we’ve had many more classes in town and at Bay Creek. I would estimate about 100 folks have been instructed how to play pickleball between the three of us.”

The Cape Charles pickleball Facebook group has been a powerful way to connect pickleball lovers across the Eastern Shore. “We have dedicated pickleball times on the town courts and dedicated tennis times,” Jo says. “These dedicated times allow each group to share the courts respectfully and schedule times to play without interference. This allows both groups to grow and play.” Pickleball has open play time Monday through Friday from 4-7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 12-4 p.m. “This means that anyone who plays can come out to the courts and rotate into games,” Jo says. “This is more recreational play and is a great way to get moving and have fun and be social.”    

The Pickleball League is a way to group players together who are of similar skill levels. There are three groups of eight players each, including advanced beginner, intermediate, and advanced. The leagues play in a round-robin format.

While the group has made great strides in bringing local pickleball fans together, it’s also been beneficial for visiting pickleball fans. “Our local group is a very welcoming group, and we like to see new players come out to give it a try,” Jo says. “Through our Facebook page, we have many tourists reach out to find out where and when they can play. We just recently had a group of 20 players cruise here from Annapolis that wanted to play with the local group. Pickleball players often seek out tourist destinations that offer pickleball. It’s wonderful that Cape Charles is on the pickleball radar now.” 

In Cape Charles, you can now find courts both at Central Park and at Bay Creek. Keep an eye on the Pickleball by the Bay Facebook page for information on meetups as well as free informal clinics that take place a few times a year. “There is a super high demand right now,” Jo says. “If anyone is interested in playing or learning more about pickleball, please reach out or come on out to the courts. Be careful though, pickleball is addicting.” 

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