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Craig grad finds outlet in unlikely sport

August 02, 2017

Three to five times a week you’ll find Leonard Nelson on the pickleball court, spinning and moving in his sport wheelchair in pursuit of a brightly colored wiffle ball.

The Craig Hospital graduate has found both an athletic and social outlet in the game, one of America’s fastest growing pastimes.

The racquet sport combines elements of badminton, tennis, and table tennis and is played both indoors or outdoors on a badminton-sized court and a slightly modified tennis net.

The number of places to play has more than doubled since 2010, according to the USA Pickleball Association. Nelson plays with a thriving group through the Apex Park and Recreation District in Arvada, a northwestern suburb of Denver.

He was introduced to the sport when he was working out at the Apex Center following his discharge from Craig Hospital after sustaining an incomplete spinal cord injury in a 2003 ski accident.

“When I first started working out at Apex, I was using a slide board to get from my wheelchair onto the machines,” he says. “As I got stronger, I was able to graduate to using hand crutches.”

In 2012, Nelson met local legend “Pickleball Ken” Marquardt, an area ambassador for the game, who encouraged Nelson to give it a try.

“At first I thought, yeah right, what am I going to do, hit the ball with my crutch?” Nelson jokes. “I sat down and tried it with a regular wheelchair, which didn’t work very well”

After consulting with experts at Craig, the Apex Park and Recreation District purchased three sport chairs for Nelson and others to use when playing at Apex facilities. He now plays nearly daily at the Apex Center or at the Apex outdoor courts at W. 82nd Ave. and Simms St.

“Leonard is the most positive individual I’ve ever met,” says Marquardt. “I’ve seen the most unbelievable changes in him as he’s learned to maneuver his chair and play, he’s getting better and better all the time.”

According to Marquardt, part of pickleball’s appeal is the camaraderie with other players. “It’s not a sport, it’s a community that anyone can be a part of—there’s always someone that will play with you, and we’re fully integrated. People of any age and any ability will play together.”

The pickleball community has banded together to once again host the 2017 Pickleball for Heroes, a tournament September 1-3 in Arvada. One hundred percent of the proceeds will benefit Operation TBI Freedom, a sponsored program of Craig Hospital that serves veterans with traumatic brain injury. The 2016 event raised more than $70,000 for the program.

“We’re so excited to raise money for Craig to support our military veterans,” says Marquardt. “The tournament is a way to build community and change lives.”

Nelson looks forward to participating in the tournament this year. “People come from California, Texas…it’s a big deal,” he says. “We raise a lot of money and it’s a lot of fun.”

Leonard encourages other Craig graduates to get involved in the game by attending a skills-building session at the Apex Center or other recreation facility. “The only thing better than the game is the people you play with, they’re the finest group of people you’ll ever meet,” he says.

“My life motto is simple….eat, sleep, and play pickleball.”

Learn more about the Pickleball for Heroes event at or contact Ken Marquardt at or Sponsorships and volunteer opportunities are available.