When Alix Truong talks about her life, it’s usually in terms of the sports she has played. There’s her introduction to tennis at age 6, soccer two years later, then a stint on a volleyball team her freshman year of high school.
And now, her brightest passion, the sport she discovered by accident a few years ago.
“I keep telling people that I never really knew what it was like to love a sport until I found pickleball,” said Truong, 18.
A few weeks after Truong joined the Marshall High tennis team in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the season. Public courts near her Falls Church home closed, and she found herself running out of opportunities to play regularly.
Eager to get out of the house, Truong visited a friend whose family had a tennis court in their backyard. She noticed an alternate set of lines drawn over the usual tennis markings. Instead of service boxes, there was a rectangular area called “the kitchen,” and instead of rackets, there were paddles.
This, she learned, was pickleball.
In early 2021, months after her first encounter with pickleball, Truong played her first pro tournament. Quickly, she was hooked.
Coming from tennis, Truong knew she already had the basic mechanics for the sport. Despite playing No. 1 singles and doubles at Marshall her sophomore and junior years, she struggled to break out of a crowded field of opponents in Northern Virginia. Pickleball, on the other hand, offered a chance to rise quickly through the ranks.
“I actually think it’s easier to become a professional in pickleball than it is to get a college shot in tennis at this point,” said W.T. Woodson assistant tennis coach Emily Pavot, who also has taken to pickleball. After a broken wrist left her unable to play tennis, Pavot started playing pickleball in 2020, and now she regularly competes in tournaments and trains with Truong.
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What started as a curiosity for Truong became a healthy addiction, to the point that she gave up tennis and a typical high school life to play pickleball full time. She is embarking on a tour, is taking part in competitions across the country and could be blazing a path for young players to pursue a career in pickleball.
In her brief time in the sport, Truong has skyrocketed to the top echelons of pro pickleball. She joined the Association of Pickleball Players tour and has won 19 medals, including eight gold; she signed with Major League Pickleball and last week was drafted by the California BLQK Bears.
Truong said players in upcoming APP tournaments can net $4,000 for a gold medal, and sponsors often match the prize money. While that pales in comparison to purses in other pro sports, participants are largely betting on pickleball’s future.
“I saw that there was so much potential in the sport, so much growth,” Truong said of her transition to the game. “So I figured, let me hop on this train while I can very early on to see where my career could go.”
It’s no secret that pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. Its easy-to-learn, hard-to-master formula makes it compelling for new players, and its unpretentious origins as a backyard novelty have helped build a welcoming community.
But despite pickleball’s exponential growth as a recreational sport, there is no clear pipeline to the top levels. With no league-sanctioned opportunities for high-schoolers and few collegiate opportunities, young players are looking to the still-developing professional scene as their primary path to serious competition — and one that requires extraordinary leaps of faith.
Truong is an exception.
For many students thinking about pickleball, until it is offered as a school-sanctioned sport, it won’t evolve beyond a hobby. And adding a new scholastic sport doesn’t happen overnight.
“We already have 27 sports, so how many kids do you have to go around to field all these teams?” Virginia High School League Executive Director Billy Haun said. “Then again, it’s always good to offer a sport that will hit a different population — maybe someone who’s not playing tennis.”
Haun said the VHSL accepts proposals from school administrators to address the logistics of an emerging sport. Once a proposal is accepted, high schools have up to three years to build club and intramural programs at more than half of the schools in a given classification. If that threshold is met, the VHSL will move to adopt it as an official sport, complete with state tournaments and funding.
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While that appears far off for most Virginia high schools, Pavot argues adding pickleball could be low maintenance. Lines can be overlaid on tennis courts, so there’s little need for new facilities, and because Virginia public schools play tennis in the spring, pickleball could use the same courts in the fall.
McLean is one high school leading the pickleball charge in Northern Virginia. Junior Aaron Chandler, who started playing pickleball tournaments with his mother in 2019, was approached by McLean Principal Ellen Reilly about helping to start a club, and he was surprised by the interest at their first meeting last spring.
“Our first time we had people sign up, we were expecting 20 to 30 people, and we ended up getting over 60,” Chandler said. “So it was really cool. Everyone wanted to play.”
It helps that the Highlanders have a handful of experienced players, such as Chandler and junior Vernon Ngo, who won silver in boys’ doubles at the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in January. Together they have generated interest among classmates and guided newbies at club meetings.
Truong looks on hopefully. She admits the path she took isn’t feasible for everyone. Sacrificing a typical teenage social life wasn’t an easy decision, and it’s one that most student-athletes in high school sports don’t have to make.
“If high schools can start to develop small clubs, get people to join — just anything to introduce more of the younger generation to the sport — that would be amazing,” Truong said.
As national pickleball tournaments took up more of her time, Truong couldn’t keep up with the demands of tennis during her senior year.
She sat down with her parents to weigh the pros and cons of quitting the team and committing fully to pickleball. Her parents had also become avid pickleball players, but they did not want Truong to neglect her education. They came up with a plan to balance her ambitions, making sure she took online classes as a “Plan B” in case pickleball fizzled out.
Truong’s father, John Brown, was the first in the family to play seriously, but he said Truong’s plan to pursue a pickleball career took some convincing.
“My wife was kind of taken aback by it,” Brown said. “She didn’t think that this was anything serious, that you can’t really make a living out of it. But as we saw the popularity of the sport and started to get into it and see where it was headed, we came around to the idea that we can definitely give support. … Just being a parent, you want to see your child happy and pursue their passion, so I’m here to support her.”
Truong said she had little interest in high school social events such as prom, so missing out didn’t worry her. She built a new network of friends on the APP tour, even though many of them are at least a decade older. She often travels with teammates or competitors, many of whom have helped her navigate the challenges of being one of the faces of a new generation of players.
A defining moment of her burgeoning career came in Cincinnati in May, when she won her first APP gold medal while playing mixed doubles with tour veteran Andrei Daescu. She said she felt immense pressure within the pickleball community to earn a gold, “so that definitely fueled me.”
This is the first year that she is signed on for every stop on the tour, going from Ohio to New York to California over the past month or so, with one- or two-day stops in between to visit family at home and practice. As one of the youngest players on tour, when she’s not competing or training, she’s completing classes for her online school program.
After wrapping up her senior year, she’s starting with an online program at George Mason University that will allow her to maintain her travel schedule while satisfying her parents’ push for a Plan B.
“It’s definitely different being the baby on the tour, still having to go through school and doing classes while I’m on the road,” Truong said. “… I love traveling, and so I wouldn’t mind just hopping around each state every week and living on people’s couches for a little bit, because it’s all part of the fun.”
As more talent flocks to the top stops on the APP tour, Truong is careful to make sure she’s growing alongside the sport. In addition to relentless practice schedules, she’s involved in personal branding, coaching workshops and guest appearances at training camps.
Building off advice from older stars, Truong is hoping to build a career that mirrors the sport itself: loud, dynamic and limitless.
“My fellow pro players, they thought, ‘Let’s come into the sport early, let’s make a name for ourselves, create a brand so that when the sport does explode and become hopefully as big as tennis, one day we’ll be the face of it,’ ” Truong said. “I really took that into perspective: Let me try to be the face of the younger generation.”



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