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"Pickleball Ken" Uses Sport to Make a Difference

September 14, 2022

Ken Marquardt is best known for two things: his passion and his heart for service.

The 82-year-old has combined his love for the sport of pickleball with his love for his country, helping raise significant support for Craig’s Operation TBI Freedom program for injured veterans.

Ken’s first passion was tennis and he attended college on a tennis scholarship. After two shoulder surgeries, he discovered pickleball. Combining elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis, pickleball is gentler on the body and is suitable for individuals of all ages, abilities and fitness levels. Considered America’s fastest-growing sport, nearly 30 million people play and there are more than 70 dedicated courts in the Denver area.

He was hooked and soon became an ambassador of the sport. “Pickleball Ken” as he is affectionately known, is a driving force behind pickleball’s meteoric rise in popularity in the Denver metropolitan area. In 2011, Ken collaborated with the Apex Park and Recreation District and Jeffco Open Space to create 24 pickleball courts on 10 acres of land in Arvada, Colorado.

As a brain injury survivor, Ken wanted to make a difference for veterans who had sustained these challenging injuries. He was introduced to Operation TBI Freedom (OTF), a program of Craig Hospital based in Colorado Springs. A donor-funded program, OTF helps vets navigate their return to civilian life by connecting them with resources and support to improve mental and physical health, as well as providing direct services not available elsewhere.

“It’s difficult to understand traumatic brain injury if you haven’t experienced it,” he says. “I have a unique understanding of the challenges that these brave service members face.”

Ken galvanized his pickleball community around the cause, and the first Pickleball for Heroes Tournament took place in 2015. An all-volunteer committee organized the tournament, which was open to both recreational and competitive players. One hundred percent of the proceeds from sponsorships, registrations and donations went to Operation TBI Freedom. Over the years, the tournament and other fundraising activities have raised nearly $400,000 for the program.

Ken has also organized skills clinics for Craig patients, kids with autism and other disabilities, residents of the Colorado state prison system, and other organizations including the Special Olympics. He is the point person for an anonymous group known as the "Caring Hearts" that provides volunteer services to any member of the 5,700+ strong pickleball community who is in need.

He was the guest of honor at a special dinner in Arvada on September 12 to recognize and thank him for his community impact over the years. Representatives from Craig, Operation TBI Freedom, Ken’s family and others who have been touched by his volunteerism attended the event.

Ken feels blessed by what he has received in his life and enjoys giving back where he can.

“I can see lives being changed. People being happier,” he says. “It’s all positive. I get more out of it than I put in.”

Make a donation to Operation TBI Freedom