Getting fit with Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley

Getting fit with Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley

On a tennis-turned-pickleball court at Truxtun Park in late October, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley ran up to the net to return short balls and lunged to hit speedy shots out of the air.

For over an hour, Buckley rotated in and out of fast-paced games with a cadre of friends, some new to the sport and others whose play looked more like that of seasoned pros. Especially electric points were punctuated with “oohs” and “aahs,” with laughing, cheering and paddle tapping.

“Pickleball can save America,” said Buckley, 60, days before the Saturday morning outing. “It’s given people purpose. It’s given them ways to exercise.”

He was the best mayor playing at Truxtun that day, he pointed out jokingly, working up a sweat alongside a crowd of enthusiastic constituents.

First elected in 2017 and now midway through his second term, Buckley, a Democrat born in South Africa and raised in Perth, Australia, has made physical activity a part of his political footprint and his personal life, with running, cycling and pickleball all in the mix.

Pickleball is Buckley’s newest hobby of the bunch, a “guilty pleasure” in part because it’s the “uncoolest sport in the world,” he said. “But it’s so addictive.”

The gentle-on-the-body sport has caught on in a big way in recent years. After the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association named pickleball the fastest-growing sport in the United States.

“There’s always someone who wants to play,” Buckley said. When he doesn’t show up with friends to Truxtun, where dedicated pickleball courts were unveiled in 2021, the mayor said he adds his name to a list to get matched with others looking to play.

He learned the basics of the game during the summer of 2018, in a class for beginners taught by Eastport resident Sara Aiken. The following year, he amped up his dedication to the sport, appointing Aiken the city’s first official pickleball ambassador.

Together, it’s Aiken’s and Buckley’s goal to make Annapolis an East Coast pickleball destination.

“There are all sorts of wonderful benefits to pickleball,” said Aiken, who founded Eastport Pickleball, a paddle manufacturer. “It’s easy to pick up; it’s difficult to get good at. It’s very social.”


In addition to running and biking, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley is an avid pickleball player. He plays at the Truxtun Park courts. (Jerry Jackson/Staff Photo)
In addition to running and biking, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley is an avid pickleball player. He plays at the Truxtun Park courts. (Jerry Jackson/Staff Photo)

It’s been a “fun” endeavor promoting the sport, she added. “Is there a better three-letter word to describe Gavin?”

But he also has a “competitive streak,” Aiken said. With encouragement from Buckley, she launched a pickleball tournament called the Mayor’s Cup in Annapolis in 2019, with a second iteration in 2020.

Pickleball has since sprung up in odd places around the city, like in a former parking lot at the Westfield Annapolis Mall and on the roof of the newly reopened Noah Hillman Garage, downtown. The PutAway, a new pickleball facility in Millersville, opened over the summer.

“It’s become part of the fabric of the city,” Buckley said.

But it’s only one way the mayor keeps pace with all that’s going on in Annapolis.

Before sunrise most days, Buckley walks about a mile from his Murray Hill home to City Dock, where he joins other members of the 606 Run Club. Together, they ride about 4 miles of the Naval Academy grounds.

At the end of one excursion in October, Buckley and a few others sipped coffee inside Market House.

“When you start and you’ve done exercise before some people are even waking up, it’s a really rewarding feeling,” the mayor said that morning.

Running, for Buckley, is also an exercise in open mindedness.

In addition to running and biking, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley is an avid pickleball player. He plays at Truxtun Park courts every so often. (Jerry Jackson/Staff Photo)
Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun

In addition to running and biking, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley is an avid pickleball player. He plays at Truxtun Park courts every so often. (Jerry Jackson/Staff Photo)

“I run with Tea Partiers, I run with bleeding-heart liberals, Trumpers, soccer moms,” Buckley said. “We have a bit of banter. We disagree and agree on some things, but at the end of the day, we all sit down and we have a cup of coffee. We need more of that. We need to be able to talk to each other.”

In the fall, he trained for the New York City Marathon, held Nov. 5. Buckley said he walked the bulk of the race, finishing in 6 hours and 42 minutes.[Sentence w/ details about how he did TK.]

It was the mayor’s first time participating in that marathon, but he’s no stranger to marathons, triathlons and half Ironmans. In Annapolis, he joined the ranks of 606 Run Club over two decades ago, he estimated.

“Running is our therapy,” said Michael Smith, a longtime member of the group.

Smith, a Bay Ridge resident, first came to know Buckley as a fellow entrepreneur. Smith co-owned the clothing stores White House Black Market and South Moon Under with his wife and another business partner, eventually selling both; Buckley opened a coffee shop in 1993 and co-owns the restaurants Tsunami, Metropolitan Kitchen and Lounge, Lemongrass and Sailor Oyster Bar.

Buckley is one of those “friends that bring more life to the party,” Smith, 67, said.

On mornings with the 606 Run Club, the mayor “tests his [political] messaging,” Smith said. He’ll also often attempt to put smiles on the faces of people the group encounters on their route. Occasionally, that includes Gov. Wes Moore, running with his entourage.

“Whenever we see Wes Moore, Gavin runs out in front of us and pretends we’re his entourage, protecting him,” Smith said.

“This is a great running town,” Buckley said, noting that the Naval Academy is an ideal terrain, with very few cars.

But there’s progress to be made on the city’s streets, he admitted, particularly with regard to another mode of transportation (and fitness): biking.

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” he said, noting that the city is working with Anne Arundel County to ensure there’s “safe infrastructure” for biking.

“There’s nothing better than seeing this town on a bike,” he said. “Biking across the Eastport bridge at sunrise.”

In the fall of 2018, the city rolled out an experimental bike lane on Main Street that included a temporary sidewalk extension (which cut into the number of parking spaces). When the change to downtown’s streetscape elicited fiery pushback from businesses and residents, Buckley ended the brief trial even earlier than planned.

“I wouldn’t change” attempting to implement a bike line on Main Street, Buckley said, “because it made a statement about what my priorities are. And my priorities are to get people out of their cars, to get people walking, to get people biking, to get people healthier. And to decarbonize the city.”

In early 2023, the Federal Transit Administration awarded Annapolis nearly $3 million to fund an electric ferry connecting City Dock and nearby Eastport, another bold plan backed by Buckley, who said it would serve pedestrians and bikers.

“I’m going to try new things,” he said. “And some work and some don’t.”

Buckley, who’s been road biking for around three decades, said he has taken fellow politicians out on mountain bikes. They ride about four miles from the Annapolis Historic District to Waterworks Park, where they explore the solar panel park.

In a video for his 2021 re-election campaign, Buckley rides a bike through Annapolis sporting a helmet and dressed in a suit.

Other times, he’s more casual, practically blending in with exercising Annapolitans. But occasionally, Buckley’s worn a T-shirt created especially for him when he’s hit the courts.

It reads: “I am the pickleball mayor.”

And so he is.

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