Barb O’Brien’s Indelible Mark

The Good Old Days at Clear Creek Park

Mitch Dunn


I followed a very common path when I started playing pickleball. I discovered the game on vacation, fell in love fast, and came home fully obsessed. But it’s what happened next that makes pickleball so unique.

I pushed through the fear of showing up at a public park alone and jumping into Open Play. I chose Clear Creek Park, the home of Cincinnati’s first dedicated courts. Clear Creek is home to a welcoming, spirited, motley crew of players who share the addiction to the sport.

I met Barb O’Brien at Clear Creek, and she immediately became one of my earliest pickleball mentors. A longtime tennis player, Barb had the paddle skills that you almost always find at parks like this one. She was crafty and experienced, often reminding me of just how much of a noob I was.

When I popped the ball up, Barb made me pay for it. I learned quickly that pickleballs don’t really hurt you physically when they smack you in the face, but the emotional pain is very real. The fact that it sticks with you long after you leave the court is what keeps you coming back.

Barb was the ultimate ambassador for the Clear Creek crew. While she was a great player, she never made you feel anything but completely welcome on her court. I’m guessing there are at least a couple hundred people who would consider her an early mentor in the sport.

That’s the thing about pickleball, it attracts people like Barb who love to connect people to the game, to a broader community of players, and have fun doing so. She loved to welcome people into the boat, and helping them row in the same direction.

Barb O’Brien (middle) at Clear Creek Park

When Barb was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, everybody in the Clear Creek player community knew that Barb would put up the ultimate fight, and that’s exactly what she did. She would disappear from the courts for long periods of time during especially difficult treatment regimens, but then return with a little less hair and even more determination to win games, have fun, and make people feel welcome.

People like Barb are often great pickleball players because of their grit and resilience. Barb put those traits on full display throughout her fight with this ugly, dreaded disease. She became an inspiration for her determination off the court, like she always had been on the court.

When I heard Barb lost her brave fight with cancer, I couldn’t help but long for the old days. I wanted to travel back in time, give Barb a hug after an unexpected win, and tell her how important she was in solidifying my love for the game.

While I often told her she was one my first pickleball mentors, I did so in a flippant way, often in the midst of a game. The full story is that she connected me with something surprisingly powerful. I never expected to fall in love with something like pickleball in my 50’s. I never expected to be in the shape I’m in. And I never expected to feel so connected to such an enormous, welcoming community.

Barb was a greeter, a welcomer, an ambassador, and a connector. She was a grinder, a laugher, and a lover of the game. She made an indelible impact on me and many others. She not only helped create other lovers of the game, but other ambassadors, connectors, and welcomers. They are all Barb’s legacy, and they are all longing for the old days.



Mitch Dunn

I build brands that thrive on innovation and storytelling. I am a 30-year media vet, President of the Cincy Pickleball Club, and cofounder of The Pickle Lodge.