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Queen of Pickleball loves and lives the game

by Ann-Marie Torres

Pressing up to the net, Diana O’Brien hustles a quick return and sends her opponents scrambling. She throttles a neon, green ball with a fiery snap of her wrist and wins the point.

“That’s more like it,” she exhales, smiling at her partner. “Let’s do this.”

This athletic maven refuses to lose ground on the pickleball court, as well as life. O’Brien, who is affectionately known as the Queen of Pickleball, introduced the growing sport at The Claremont Club (TCC) in 2017. She promoted the unique sport throughout the area including Wheeler Park in Claremont and The Upland Sports Arena. In fact, O’Brien was the first person at The Claremont Club to identify pickleball’s increasing popularity and rally support for the fastest growing sport in the nation.

“She came to me first and we decided to test it out,” said former TCC President and CEO Mike Alpert. The club taped off a few tennis courts for temporary play with only a mediocre response, according to Alpert. “Finally we decided, if we’re going to do this, we need to go in all the way.” said Alpert.

Suffice to say, O’Brien was left to grow the sport which, to that point, was virtually unknown in Claremont.

“God bless her. She spent so much time talking to people, recruiting people,” Alpert recalled. “She gets all the credit, she worked diligently and was so committed.”

Although O’Brien was running TCC’s racquetball program for over 15 years, she spent long days and nights teaching people the fundamentals of pickleball, hosting socials after games and recruiting anyone walking “within a few feet” of the courts.

“I was the only instructor because no one had even heard of it back then,” she laughed.

As TCC’s director of racquet sports and the top women’s racquetball player, O’Brien picked up the game quickly, bought the book, ‘Pickleball For Dummies,’ and lobbied hard for the conversion of two well-trafficked tennis courts into eight pickleball areas.

The game blends elements of tennis, Ping Pong and badminton and is played on indoor and outdoor courts with a modified tennis net. Players use a paddle and oversized plastic, wiffle ball during a game of singles or doubles.

Fernando Araiza was still playing tennis in 2018 when O’Brien spotted him eyeballing the game at TCC. “I didn’t even know her back then,” said the 47-year-old. “She would ask me, ‘Hey, when are you going to play with us?’”

Araiza said O’Brien’s kind persistence drew him and his son, Ivan, onto the courts and ultimately to enter their first regional tournament, where both earned gold medals. That tournament was hosted at The Claremont Club and drew 732 players — a testament to the rapid growth of the sport.

Soon thereafter, the program began to take hold among TCC members who migrated from racquetball, tennis and other activities.

“Diana is truly a great ambassador of the sport and an inspiration for me,” said Araiza, who no longer plays tennis and instead plays pickleball exclusively. “She’s competitive. She plays with passion.”

But just as pickleball’s addictive nature was developing into a fast-paced, competitive racquet sport at the private club, COVID-19 hit. On March 19, 2020, the pandemic closed the courts and doors of The Claremont Club for nearly a year.

“It was so devastating,” said O’Brien, who grew accustomed to the active lifestyle and the community of friends she played with day in and day out.

As the pandemic began to isolate once active TCC members, O’Brien decided to keep pickleball alive for anyone interested in playing outdoors on public courts at Wheeler Park. The tight-knit community of players swept the lighted courts, taped off the lines and brought their own temporary nets. Friends played for hours, every day of the week…dinking, volleying and challenging one another.

The player pool at Wheeler Park increased by the dozens and O’Brien kept core groups together throughout the club’s shutdown with group texts and phone calls.

Eventually, the city replaced the temporary, taped-up boundaries with five freshly-painted, permanent courts, nets and all.

“We worked together as a team and made it fun and playable at the park,” O’Brien recalled.

In 2021, The Claremont Club reopened with new owners and a bustling pickleball community thanks in large part to O’Brien’s nurturing.

Now, O’Brien divides her time as pickleball director at the Upland Sports Arena and coordinating racquetball, squash and handball at TCC. Although she no longer oversees pickleball at the club, she visits the courts regularly to check in with friends and play.

“Diana has mentored me and my love for the game,” said Catherine Lopez, TCC’s pickleball coordinator and a USA Pickleball Ambassador. “She brought us all together.”

O’Brien’s personal joy is keeping people connected through their love of the game. “She always tries to make everything so smooth and make people feel happy and finds a place for them to play,’’ stressed Araiza.

Looking back, O’Brien readily admits her early impression of the sport was less than enthusiastic five years ago. “Pickleball! What the heck is that?,” she chuckled as she recalled the first time she heard a friend mention the game. “But today, my two favorite sports are pickleball and racquetball, and as I look back on the last five years, I wouldn’t change a thing. Pickleball changed my life for the better.”

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