Jackie Bradshaw’s once–promising tennis career at Bethany College in Kansas disappeared after she underwent elbow surgery and four shoulder procedures, including a full replacement.
While her body seemingly failed her, Jackie’s love for the game and desire for athletic competition never totally disappeared. She longed to play again someday if the opportunity arose. That chance came a few years ago when she took up a new paddle–ball game that swept the country.
“Someone mentioned to me, ‘Hey, you should come and try pickleball. It’s way easier on your joints.’ We had some courts opening in the town I was living in (Mount Carmel, Ill.), and I went to the grand opening, picked up a paddle, and haven’t been able to put one down since,” Jackie remembers.
Jackie, 25, is now a professional pickleball player and if you arrive early enough, you might see her honing her skills at The Salvation Army in Cambridge, Ohio. A music education major at nearby Muskingum University, Jackie is the program director at The Salvation Army in Cambridge, where she teaches both music and pickleball.
“I couldn’t ask for a better job,” Jackie says. “It’s honestly the best of both worlds.”
It was pickleball that first brought Jackie to The Salvation Army. Her high school softball team back home in Sharon, Pa., used to practice in a Salvation Army gym, but other than that she knew very little about the organization.
Bringing them in
When Jackie moved to Cambridge in 2022, she learned that the local Salvation Army had a court and asked if she could train there for the upcoming Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in Florida. Many others have followed her to The Salvation Army to learn more about the game the Sports and Fitness Industry Association calls the “fastest growing sport in America.”
“She has brought in a lot of different individuals to practice pickleball and it’s helped us be relevant in our community,” says Captain Candice McMillen, who co– leads The Salvation Army in Cambridge. “She’s outstanding in bringing members of our community into our building.
“Since she has been here, we have county commissioners, CEOs, executives, and many others who have said to her, ‘I never would have stepped in here if it wasn’t for the pickleball.’ She is pulling in a different segment of the community. They’re seeing the programs we’re doing and ways to support The Salvation Army. It’s expanded our resources as far as volunteers and even financially. Some of the people she’s bringing in through pickleball are attending church. I had never even heard of pickleball before coming here.”
What exactly is pickleball?
Invented by three fathers in 1965 in Washington state, the game is often described as a cross between tennis, Ping–Pong, and badminton. Players, who call the game highly addictive, use a paddle and a perforated plastic ball.
“It’s almost as if you’re standing on a Ping–Pong court,” Jackie says.
USA Pickleball, the national governing body for the sport, says the court is the same dimensions as a doubles badminton court— 20–by–44 feet. The net height is 36 inches.
The Sports and Fitness Industry Association says almost 5 million people are now playing pickleball—almost double the players just five years ago. It’s now so popular you can catch tournaments on ESPN and other sports channels.
“It’s a very strategic game,” Jackie says. “It’s a game of placement rather than power. It’s almost like a cat and mouse or a chess game. You’re planning your next move and really trying to place the ball really well. I love that intricate kind of a game.”
Jackie teaches about 30 beginners and more than 40 intermediate pickleball players at The Salvation Army. She is not surprised by the game’s exploding popularity.
“Pickleball is so easy to play and so easy to pick up,” she said. “Literally anybody can do it. One of my students is an amputee. She’s missing a leg, but we adapt the games so she can still play singles and doubles and enjoy the game. It’s a great time.
“The sport is accessible to just about everybody in one way or another. I’m not afraid to admit this, but I’ve been beaten by an 80–year–old, and I’m 25. It’s an even playing field. I like that everyone can jump on a court and play with somebody.”
The Salvation Army in Cambridge has only one court, but McMillen said the church may soon lease more space to expand to six courts. That would allow the church to host tournaments, which could help The Salvation Army raise money.
Jackie usually works out at The Salvation Army on her own game from 5–7 a.m. “I have qualified for the pro tour, which I’ve backed off a little bit because of school,” she says.
Since joining the tour with sponsor ProXR Pickleball, Jackie has earned numerous silver and gold medals in singles and doubles at the bubbly Pickleball Championships in Las Vegas, the U.S. Open in Florida, the Cincinnati Open, the Indianapolis Open, and several local events. She especially enjoys the camaraderie among the players while on tour.
Finding the spiritual
“If you ask any of the pros, pickleball is such an amazing community,” she said. “If I go to a tournament, I have people coming up and just making conversation with me. The first time I was around the other pros, playing as an amateur, they came up and just talked to me as a regular person. That’s truly what makes the sport great.
“I could go to a tournament in Nevada or Arizona or Texas or Florida and I can find people who are like, one big family. There’s great sportsmanship. That’s something you don’t get with a lot of sports.”
Jackie said her spiritual life has a prominent role in her pickleball career.
“When I compete, I get extremely nervous,” she said. “I’m just starting out as a pro, so I’m an underdog quite a bit. So, I just take a step back and think, Hey, if I wasn’t supposed to be doing this, God wouldn’t have put me here. I think about stories of perseverance like David and Goliath and think, Hey, I can do this. I can compete. He’s got my back. He can keep me going. Christ means everything in my life.”
Jackie became a Christian in the past few years after being raised a Catholic. One of five children, she described her childhood as a “little rough.” Her father was in the military and not home much, so Jackie gravitated to athletics, music, and church for guidance.
Healing from the past
When Jackie was in 7th grade, her Catholic school closed. She started attending a Christian school and found a deeper relationship with God. She was driven further away from Catholicism when her church hurt her family on several occasions.
McMillen said Jackie came to The Salvation Army “kind of wounded,” untrusting, and shy. McMillen has discipled her to overcome the past.
“We’ve tried to knock down those barriers and make her feel welcome,” she said. “We’ve given her time to heal, while showing her The Salvation Army is different. It’s important to us that she find her faith in God for herself. When you’re dealing with someone who has been so hurt by a church, those barriers are very difficult to knock down.
“We’ve seen her come a long way. We’re hearing it and seeing it in her life. She is warming up to a new faith,” McMillen added. “We see her growing in her faith in many ways in our conversations. She’s been a great member of our team and we love her to death.”
Several families asked Jackie to sit with them when she started attending The Salvation Army. That may seem like a small thing to some people, but Jackie says that meant the world to her.
“Those are the things that make a difference in my life,” she said. “They were super– inviting from the get–go. I’m accepted for who I am. It’s a phenomenal atmosphere there.
“The Salvation Army is a judgment– free zone. They love unconditionally no matter what. They say, ‘We are so sorry that happened to you. How can I help you now?’ That’s the mentality there needs to be in a church setting.”
A perfect fit
McMillen said Jackie’s athletic competitiveness bleeds over into her spiritual life and she often feels she needs to be perfect. McMillen reminds her that everyone is sinful and broken. She hopes Jackie attends a new group starting soon called “Broken and Beautiful.”
“We’re all broken,” McMillen said. “We want people to come realizing you don’t have to be perfect. Broken pieces make beautiful mosaics. When broken pieces gather, something beautiful comes out of it.”
Once they learned about Jackie’s skillset of music and athletics, Captain Candice and her husband, Captain Ed McMillen, asked her if she wanted to become the church’s program director.
Jackie runs pickleball lessons and clinics and daily recreation. She also teaches at the church’s music academy once a week, a program she hopes to expand to two or three days a week. Jackie plays the trumpet and French horn and teaches woodwinds, piano, theory, and vocals.
“Music is very important to me,” she said. “I truly feel like it’s my calling and my passion. There’s a lot of music in the Bible and in the Old Testament. Music allows us to feel our emotions and use them to connect to God better within ourselves.
Big dreams ahead
“I love teaching at The Salvation Army. It’s a safe and comfortable environment. It’s so amazing to walk in and feel like I’m within a family. It’s an amazing community.”
Jackie said her goal is to be a music teacher and her dream is to someday become a high school band director. But first she wants to see how far pickleball will take her.
“It is something I’m doing for fun, but it’s also something that I enjoy to the point I want to see how far I can take it,” she said. “I never once believed that I could play pro. The fact that I’m standing here playing pro with a pro sponsorship is a testament.”
Jackie said she will do so with the newfound faith McMillen helped instill in her.
“The Lord means everything in my life today,” Jackie says. “Just knowing He has my back and has a plan for me is the biggest positive outlook on life that I can have.”