Some people run from the cold, but Christopher Vatis, chief organizer of the Polar Picklers, embraces it. Snow shovel in hand, he keeps his fellow pickleball players active throughout the winter.
In March of 2021, when Vermont was deep in quarantine, Vatis was happy to be able to spend time with his wife Emily and go walking and hiking, but he craved community. “Everyone was feeling some cabin fever,” he said.
Vatis had a background in tennis, squash and racquetball, but when a friend told him about pickleball, he was intrigued.
Vatis and his wife joined the beginners’ pickleball class at Charlotte Town Beach on Saturday mornings. It was still chilly, so in addition to masks, players were wearing gloves.
“It felt very strange to be doing something we hadn’t done before with people we hadn’t met before,” he said, “but we took to it. We liked the people, the game and the license to be outside.”
Eventually Vatis and his wife were invited to join the regular Monday and Thursday evening pickleball groups.
“At that point it became like sugar,” Vatis said. “If one tablespoon is good, maybe two will be even better.”
He started asking people if they wanted to play on other nights and soon began developing an email list to notify other players if there was a change in the date or time.
When summer turned to fall, the town nets were taken down at the beach, but Vatis rigged up a system with portable nets, dowels and bungee cords to fasten to the stanchions. His daily emails to his pickleball comrades began to include jokes, puzzles, riddles and poetry which led to greater engagement. Players brought shovels to clear the snow and when there was significant snowfall, Vatis put his snowblower on a trailer and brought it to the beach. Sometimes there were two people shoveling but other times as many as 10 showed up.
Over the winter, the hardcore group that formed called themselves the Polar Picklers and had T-shirts and sweatshirts made with a polar bear and pickleball paddle.
“It became more of a social thing,” Vatis said. “On Saturdays we have après pickle with a little potluck, and sometimes people who didn’t play on that day come over to be with friends.”
Vatis grew up in the New York City area and followed his father, a Greek national, into the family shipping business. He was the seventh generation to enter the field, working first in Manhattan and then Greece. When his mother became ill, he moved back to New York and got a job as an oil trader.
Subsequently, Vatis moved to Washington, D.C., with his first wife and worked in real estate. Although he had only lived in urban environments, he felt a connection to the outdoors and wilderness, so the couple moved to Vermont to find a better place to raise their children. Looking for a new way to make a living, Vatis enrolled in a one-year program at University of Vermont to get his master’s in teaching and his licensure.
Vatis describes himself as an atypical teacher because he is male and worked at the primary level, but he taught for 19 years. He recalls that he was sometimes chastised for going over children’s heads, but his philosophy was that kids were more capable than they were given credit for.
“One colleague described me as one part professor and one part game show host,” he said.
Vatis is thrilled that his pickleball companions enjoy both the game and his daily communication with them. “At one point I thought I could drop the emails because it became kind of burdensome to say something witty and clever that elicited engagement,” he said, “but people really seemed to like it.”
Three and a half years later, he has only skipped that email for a few days while on vacation. Vatis sends out his missives between 4:30 and 5:30 in the morning. He notes that the average age of the players is 70 with the oldest about to turn 81. He said most of them get up early and like to plan their day around game time. The group has grown so much that they are currently not accepting new members.
Cold weather has set in, but that hasn’t deterred the Polar Picklers. Vatis said snow cover is an issue because age has diminished the agility of some of the players and they want to avoid injury, but cold is less of a problem.
“As the zeal for playing and the need for camaraderie grew, the threshold for when it was too cold dropped,” he said. “It’s now 10 degrees.”