Helle Sparre embarks on globetrotting quest to grow the sport of pickleball
The former tennis pro is combining two passions — travel and pickleball — to spread the sport in new countries.
Helle Sparre’s journey from Copenhagen, Denmark, to the United States was fueled by her love of sports. Originally a professional tennis player, Helle made waves in the tennis world from 1973-78, winning a doubles title at the 1978 Clay Court U.S. Open Championships.
Following her retirement from tennis, Helle was a tennis pro and director in Northern California, even penning a book on tennis doubles. About eight years ago, she came across the game of pickleball, but it wasn’t until a year later when she moved to Mesa, Arizona, that she truly became addicted to the game.
“I loved everything about it, and in a matter of 10-15 minutes, I got to hit all my favorite tennis shots: drop shots, passing shots, and all sorts of volleys using spin power and placement to create havoc on my opponents' side,” Helle says.
In her initial years in the sport, she participated in several senior pro and 5.0+ tournaments, clinching titles at prestigious events like the US Open Pickleball Championships and USA Pickleball Nationals.
Now, Helle is combining her extensive pickleball experience with her passion for travel to introduce the sport to communities worldwide.
“I am traveling all over the world teaching the chess game strategy of pickleball and I’m having so much fun bringing this system of play to thousands of students,” Helle says.
Helle's global journey took an unexpected turn in February 2023 when her friend and fellow pickleball coach Dotti Berry called to say she and her friend Kathleen Kiefer, the founder of U.S. non-profit Bhutan Cultural Exchange, were putting together a trip to introduce pickleball to Bhutan.
Dotti invited Helle to join the trip as a pickleball coach. Bhutan is a nation nestled along the eastern edge of the Himalayas in Southeast Asia, and prior to the journey, Kathleen was able to connect the coaches with several monasteries and schools that expressed interest in the sport.
Over a span of two weeks, the team embarked on a mission to introduce pickleball to Bhutanese schools and monasteries, imparting the game's basics to more than 1,000 children and adults. Helle also conducted a one-day training session for 26 top coaches from Paro College of Education and Royal Thimpu College, equipping them to carry forward the sport's teachings.
Because of the Bhutan Cultural Exchange’s groundwork ahead of the trip, three pickleball courts had been built at the Woochu Sports Arena, and while the group was there, the courts were opened with a Buddhist ritual celebration.
Of course, the team built in some time to take in the sights. Several members hiked up to the famous Tiger's Nest — an elevation of 10,200 feet — where they held the longest rally at the highest elevation ever recorded.
To ensure that pickleball thrives in Bhutan, the volunteers left behind hundreds of Selkirk balls, paddles, and nets.
"It was a life-changing experience," Helle recalls. "The participants absolutely loved it, and many had badminton or ping pong as a background, so it came easy for them. I loved seeing kids, monks, and nuns in their uniforms and flip-flops getting hooked on this amazing game."
Before departing Bhutan, the volunteers secured commitments from several partners, including the Woochu Sports Arena Royal Academy and Decehncholong Higher Secondary School, to support the growth of pickleball. Additionally, the Bhutan Cultural Exchange hired a coach to sustain the program at every location it visited.
The group plans to return to Bhutan in March and September of 2024 to continue spreading the sport to new schools and monasteries. For now, the coaches are keeping track of the sport's growth by watching a new Facebook group called Pickleball in Bhutan.
“We are all doing what we can to add new countries to the list of pickleball representation with the ultimate goal of it being an Olympic sport,” Helle says. “But also on a smaller scale, it’s wonderful to add this social, fun, healthy, easy-to-learn, and inexpensive sport to a new country.
“I was part of the craze in the ’70s when tennis took off, and tennis has given me a lifetime of joy and happiness, so now to be a part of this new pickleball craze and be able to share it with so many people, there is no better feeling than passing it on.”