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Pickleball Growth Expanding in Peachtree Corners

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pickleball peachtree corners

The relatively new sport has more players than courts to accommodate them

Pat Foley remembers when the popularity of tennis exploded into its golden era in the 1970s. That’s when the 65-year-old Peachtree Corners resident picked up the game, and he continued to play it for decades to come. But as Foley has gotten older, the physical demands of tennis haven’t changed.

“I played tennis for a long time, and as we age, the tennis court seems to get bigger and bigger,” he said.

Now Foley is seeing the surge of another sport — pickleball. It’s like tennis but doesn’t require players to cover as much turf. In 2019, National Public Radio named pickleball the fastest growing sport in America, and according to news outlet Axios, participation in the sport increased by 21.3% between 2019 and 2020. An estimated 4.2 million Americans play the sport at least once per year.

“I had seen something in the news about it,” Foley said. “I had never played it. I really enjoyed it. It’s a very social game.”

Foley is a member of the Pickleball Flex League, which was started last year by Ace Tennis Academy owner Jeff Weaver and is designed to introduce new players to the sport.

Weaver has owned and operated Ace Tennis Academy since 1994 and developed it into one of the top tennis development programs in Atlanta, producing the winners of more than 35 national titles. But with the rapid growth of pickleball and no pickleball courts near Peachtree Corners to play on, he decided it was time to expand Ace Tennis Academy beyond tennis.

“It was time to introduce pickleball because pickleball is growing so much,” Weaver said. “There’s a want and a need for tennis players to play pickleball, but there’s also a want and a need for our members who don’t play tennis. We’re introducing pickleball and engaging more membership.”

A sport is born

The Pickleball Flex League allows members to play matches on their schedules. It’s a doubles-only league, which means players must find a partner of the same gender to form a team, and the league is divided into different divisions based on experience.

Each team communicates with other teams to schedule when and where the match will take place. Teams can designate any suitable court they choose to be their home court, where they will play three of their six matches for the season.

“We set up a flexible league because most people don’t have permanent courts,” Weaver said. “They have tennis courts with lines on it and they have to share time with tennis players. The flexible league allows them to schedule on their own time.”

Weaver said he first gauged community interest by hosting a meet-and-greet at its Field’s Club location in the Riverfield neighborhood off East Jones Bridge Road. The event drew a crowd of about 100 people. Now the league is beginning its third season. “We tripled in size from our first season to our second season,” he said. “We’re projected to probably double that or triple that this coming season.”

Foley, who has played in the league since the first season, said he not only noticed the growth in the second season, which took place last fall, but also the difference in competition. “Everybody that we played was better in the second season, and we didn’t play any of the same people,” he said.

Weaver said what the Pickleball Flex League currently offers is just the beginning. Ace Tennis Academy is in the process of converting two of its eight tennis courts at its Amberfield location, behind The Forum, into six full-time pickleball courts. When that happens, those courts will play full-time host to league matches, he said, and he plans to hire a full-time pickleball coach to the Ace Tennis Academy staff.

“Once we have permanent courts built, we will start providing a full-time pickleball instructor with those and start programming for our members. And then it’ll just blow up,” Weaver predicted. “Our goal is to build the pickleball membership to be as high as the tennis membership here.”

League membership costs $70 per player, and Weaver said he plans to expand the league from doubles to mixed doubles (a male and female on each team) and singles for its upcoming summer season. He’s also considered the possibility of forming a club team that would compete against other clubs from around Atlanta.

Need for public courts

But Weaver also acknowledges that an effort to establish permanent public pickleball courts would be beneficial to Peachtree Corners. “We’re also wanting to help the city and people in the area to lobby to have courts built in Peachtree Corners,” he said. “That would be a big plus for the pickleball community. You don’t have to be a member of the club to play.”

The city isn’t alone in having a lack of permanent courts despite growing interest in the sport.

Walter Putnam

Walter Putnam, a certified pickleball instructor in Duluth, said he has taught more than 800 people to play the sport in the past three years. “I haven’t had one person hand me their paddle back and say ‘Hey, this is not for me,’” Putnam said. “Everyone seems to like it. I spend about an hour and half to introduce them, and it only takes three lessons before they’re ready to go and play open matches.”

The question is, where can they go to play those matches?

Putnam is an ambassador for USA Pickleball, which means he travels through metro Atlanta raising awareness of the sport, establishing pickleball programs and lobbying to have public courts built.

Putnam said he has been working with Gwinnett County for two years trying to get more public courts built. He said the county has a 10-year plan to build 40 courts scattered throughout the area, but Putnam said ideally there needs to be one or two facilities that host 20 courts each. “We need a lot more than three or four here or three or four there,” he said. “We need a facility with something like 22 dedicated courts.

“This is an explosive market for pickleball. I’ve been predicting it for several years. It’s a slow process, but I would like to see something dramatic happen in Gwinnett County.”

Freelance journalist and content marketer, author and aspiring Screenwriter. Nathan has written for Savannah Morning News, The Brunswick News and the Bayonet and Saber.

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Deflecting debilitating blows one Guardian Cap at a time

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A Guardian Cap in use courtesy of Guardian Sports

With football season in the rearview for most players, the effects of injuries–especially those blows to the head–can alter careers and live well after the final play.

A relatively new piece of equipment manufactured in Peachtree Corners helps alleviate much of the impact from those hits that a helmet alone can’t deflect.

Husband and wife team Lee and Erin Hanson started Guardian Sports in 2011 with one goal: innovating equipment to better serve athletes. But one must go back even further to understand the science behind their technology.

“[Our initial company] really had nothing to do with sports,” said Erin.

She and her husband started the Hanson Group, a material science company, about 30 years ago.

“The Hanson Group solves problems for other companies–material science problems,” she said.

“Lee is a chemical engineer from Georgia Tech. … [He created] things for the military and all kinds of applications for all kinds of Fortune 500 companies. If they need something done quickly, they come to the Hanson Group and we try to solve their material science problems,” she explained.

By chance, someone from the helmet industry came to them looking to make a more flexible helmet.

“We saw the data behind what it could do to flex the exterior of a helmet,” she said. “And even though that company didn’t make it, we decided that if we could retrofit any football helmet inexpensively, we could cut down on the impact that all players were feeling.”

Making football fun and safe for all

When the idea for Guardian Caps came together, the Hansons weren’t considering adding another division to the company.

The drive to make the helmet accessory grew from the passion to help the game.

“Quite honestly, Lee and I were pretty far along in our lives. We had raised five children, and he had been at the Hanson Group for at least 20 years by then,” said Erin.

The couple questioned whether they wanted to launch something new and revolutionary. There was nothing like it on the market.

“We felt like if we’re going to go direct to consumer, we’re going to branch off to a whole new company and just go for it and see if we can make a difference,” said Erin.

Through trial and error, Lee and his team analyzed data that showed what a softer helmet exterior could do to reduce impact, which would translate into reducing injury rates.

“And how can we do it in a way that’s affordable and could be available for mass adoption?” Lee said during an interview with the city of Peachtree Corners.

“How can I make it affordable to that mom who’s already buying all that equipment for her child to play youth football? How can we create a one-size-fits-all?” he recalled.

He said they worked with a cut-and-sew facility and seamstress and made up the first prototypes before testing them in a laboratory.

Their son and his teammates at Wesleyan became the first to practice with the new equipment.

In 2012, The University of South Carolina and Clemson were the first college adopters, and the company experienced solid grassroots growth after that.

Joining the Peachtree Corners business community

By 2014, the Hansons moved their company to Peachtree Corners to benefit from the pro-business, family-friendly community and strong Georgia Tech connections.

The Guardian Cap is now used by over 300,000 youth high school and college athletes nationwide and mandated by the NFL for all 32 teams.

The cap dramatically reduces the force of impact upon collision, as experienced by football and lacrosse players. This topic has come to national attention due to CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and its relation to concussions.

According to company literature, in 2017, Guardian won the first NFL HeadHealth TECH challenge to “develop new and improved helmet and protective equipment.”

While the football helmet itself has undergone many changes since the early days of the small leather hats that only covered the tops of the head and the ears (no face mask and nothing to absorb blows from tackles and other hits), Guardian Caps are an accessory that builds upon modern technology.

Some college and professional players wear helmets made so that the interior conforms to their heads. Guardian Caps adds a layer of protection on the outside, absorbing shock before the impact even reaches the helmet.

“Now, obviously, safety is a concern amongst athletes. So, Guardian Cap has come up with this soft-shell layer that goes on top of the hard shell of the helmet,” said Lee.

In 2018, testing done by NFL and NFLPA-appointed engineers revealed that Guardian Caps made a statistically significant improvement over hard-shell helmets alone, company literature said.

By August 2020, the NFL allowed its teams to wear Guardian Caps during practice. The Jacksonville Jaguars were the first to do so. In July 2022, Guardian Caps were featured at NFL training camps for all 32 teams.

This year, the NFL mandated that Guardian Caps be used for the 2023 season in all pre-season, regular season, and post-season practices. Players in position groups with the most head contact will be required to wear Guardian Caps in addition to running backs and fullbacks, as well as linemen and linebackers.

No one-hit-wonder

Genius doesn’t take a timeout, and Guardian Sports isn’t resting on the Caps’ success alone.

“We’re constantly evolving, and although Guardian Caps is our flagship product, we’ve got others,” said Erin.

Their son Jake was a lacrosse goalie at Georgia Tech, dodging rock-hard projectiles flying at him at 93 miles an hour.

“So, we said, ‘You know, why don’t we make lacrosse balls out of rubber?’” Erin said.

Thus, Lee created a urethane ball. Called the “Pearl,” it is now the official ball of the NCAA lacrosse tournament.

The Hansons have also developed infill for artificial turf fields that isn’t made of used car tires.

Without the chemicals and carcinogens of rubber tires, the smoother pellets are puffed with air, cause fewer abrasions and lower the temperature of the field by as much as 30 degrees.

“As we see things, it’s really difficult not to want to solve things when you see our children being affected by it,” said Erin.

Investors initially wanted to sell Guardian Caps at $1,000 each, but the Hansons knew that families couldn’t afford that price tag for youth sports. At the end of the day, they are a dad and a mom who are looking out for the safety of kids.

“The NFL is really cool, and they’ve helped us with exposure, but, you know, we’ve got a real passion for helping those young developing players, for sure,” she said.

Guardian Sports
3044 Adriatic Ct NW
Peachtree Corners, GA 30071
guardiansports.com
770-667-6004

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Curiosity Lab Criterium 2024 Scheduled for Peachtree Corners as Part of Speed Week

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The 2024 Curiosity Lab Criterium will take place on a course in the world-famous Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners.
Curiosity Lab Criterium 2023 (Photos by Roxy Stone, Tytan Pictures)

The City of Peachtree Corners is proud to announce the scheduling of the second Annual Curiosity Lab Criterium as part of Speed Week on April 28, 2024. 

This year’s event will also feature a running race, kid’s races, food trucks, vendors and other activities for the family.

Curiosity Lab Criterium 2023 (Photos by Roxy Stone, Tytan Pictures)

Speed Week is a premiere week-long event on the U.S. Pro Cycling Circuit that draws cyclists from around the world, including Olympic medalists and world and national champions.  

In 2023, the professional men’s and women’s events drew cyclists from over 30 states and more than 20 countries.

The 2024 Curiosity Lab Criterium will take place on a course in the world-famous Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners, a 5G-enabled 500-acre living laboratory ecosystem designed specifically as a proving ground for IoT, mobility and smart city emerging technologies.

Curiosity Lab Criterium 2023 (Photos by Roxy Stone, Tytan Pictures)

The Criterium will feature an array of innovative technologies currently being deployed to help protect vulnerable road users (VRUs).  

This event will also showcase the VRU technology of tomorrow as exhibited by private sector V2X companies and sensor innovators, OEMs hardware and software manufacturers, government officials, bike companies, advocacy groups and more.

Curiosity Lab Criterium 2023 (Photos by Roxy Stone, Tytan Pictures)

Enter a race, or just come to enjoy the festivities.  

CategoryTime Duration
Junior 9-10, 11-12 and 13-1410 a.m.30 min.
Junior 15-16 and 17-1810:45 a.m.30 min.
Master 40+ 11:30 a.m.45 min.
Master 50+ and Master 60+12:30 p.m.45 min.
Women 4/51:30 p.m.30 min.
Men 4/52:15 p.m.30 min.
Women 3/43 p.m.40 min.
Men 2/33:50 p.m.45 min.
Running Race5 p.m.15 min.
Kid’s Races5:15 p.m.15 min.
Women Pro 1/2/3 5:45 p.m.50 min.
Men Pro 1/2 7 p.m.60 min.
Curiosity Lab Criterium schedule

Race registration and additional details will be released as they become available.

Learn more about V2X Mobility here.

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Norcross Women’s Water Polo Claims State Championship Title for the First Time

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By Emily Stevenson, Norcross Coaching Staff

The Norcross Lady Blue Devils capped off a successful water polo season when they claimed the Georgia High School Water Polo Association state title in October. 

A young team with big heart

The team’s founding season was three years ago, in 2021. Over half of the team has been playing only this sport since then. 

“When I first started, I was drowning 90% of the time,” goalkeeper Micaiah Hughes said when recalling her introduction to water polo. 

“Now I’m dragging my family to the pool, talking to everyone about the sport and sharing a fraction of what an amazing transformation it has had on my life,” she added. 

There’s no doubt that this sport has positively impacted these young athletes.

Chestatee High School Sophomore Frankie Arendale passes the ball to complete a goal against the Lady Wildcats.

The road to winning a state championship

The Lady Blue Devils had a stellar season but were ranked third in the state, having lost to the Southern Crescent team of South Atlanta and the Wildcats of Cobb County during their regular season. 

In the state championships, coaches Mariana Lombello and Emily Stevenson knew they had to take a different approach to motivate the athletes to dig deep.

“The talent was always there for us to win the state championship,” Coach Lombello said. “The girls were conditioned, knew their plays and had the connection and camaraderie … the only thing we needed was the drive to win.” 

We encouraged them to dig deep and to really believe that they could be champions, so our theme for the weekend became ‘Believe.’ We had the girls visualize themselves scoring goals, completing passes to one another and holding the trophy,” she explained. 

This encouragement proved successful when the Lady Blue Devils were down by three points to the Lady Wildcats in the semi-final game with only minutes left to play. Coach Lombello called a timeout to center the exhausted athletes and recited their mantra: Believe. 

“I believe you guys can win. This is it. Leave it all in the pool,” Lombello encouraged.

Norcross High School Junior Amelia Washburn looks for space to pass the ball during a regular season game against Atlanta Public Schools program.

Close game propels Lady Blue Devils forward

The Lady Blue Devils lost to the Lady Wildcats three times during the regular season, but they weren’t going to give up. The game ended on a buzzer-beater scored by Norcross High School junior Amelia Washburn

The crowd went wild, recognizing the mental toughness and physical skill required to make a comeback that epic. The final score was 16 to 15, and Norcross advanced to the finals.

Washburn transitioned from swimming to water polo full-time in 2021. 

“Water polo has taught me to not put limits on myself and what I’m capable of … to just go for it,” Washburn said. 

“That has improved my confidence in and out of the pool,” she added. 

Now Washburn, along with her teammates and other players all over North Georgia, plays water polo year-round. They play under North Atlanta Water Polo, the local USA Water Polo-sanctioned league founded by Elizabeth and Chris Arendale.

A special team dynamic 

Chestatee High School sophomore Frankie Arendale was a pivotal playmaker in the Lady Blue Devils’ successful season. With over 50 goals scored this season (10 of them scored in the semi-final game alone), Arendale’s skill was unmatched. 

She attributes her success to the positivity and shared love of her teammates.

“I’ve played water polo for several different teams, but this season was different,” Arendale said. “All of the girls really get each other. No one was down, and everyone was positive. Everything fit together magically.” 

Arendale was recognized as the 2023 Georgia High School Water Polo Association League MVP and has been playing water polo for eight years.

Sophomore Micaiah Hughes blocks a shot from the goal made by a Lakeside High school athlete.

The future of water polo in Georgia is bright

It is the goal of both coaches Lombello and Stevenson, as well as the North Atlanta Water Polo club, to continue to foster a love for this sport in youths. 

“Making a name for Norcross early on in the growth of the sport will be huge,” Elizabeth Arendale, founder of Norcross Water Polo Club girls’ program and North Atlanta Water Polo club, said. “We want to be affiliated with high-level water polo.”

The Lady Blue Devils practice at West Gwinnett Park and Aquatic Center in Norcross, GA.

Team photos taken by Kryski Photography.

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