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How Laotian-born, Nashville-grown Noi Sourinthone came to lead Wichita’s pickleball scene

Noi Sourinthone, the city of Wichita's pickleball director, leads pickleball drills at Riverside Tennis Center one Tuesday morning.
Celia Hack
Noi Sourinthone, the city of Wichita's pickleball director, leads pickleball drills at Riverside Tennis Center one Tuesday morning.

Noi Sourinthone is the city’s pickleball director — and the story of how he came to the job involves fleeing his home country, table tennis and an unlikely move.

As pickleballs smack the concrete at Riverside Tennis Center, Noi Sourinthone shouts to one of his students above the din.

“There you go Linda. That’s so much better! If you’re hitting it too high, it’s because you’re hitting it here…”

Sourinthone is telling her to wait for the ball to come to her. It’s a tip uncannily similar to how he — a Laotian-born, Nashville-grown 38-year-old — ended up moving to Wichita to become the city’s pickleball director: The opportunity came to him.

“I was scared to death, you know?” Sourinthone said. “It's not like I moved here, and it's like a hundred thousand in the bank account. And so I'm just (like), Hey, I'm gonna take this risk.”

In recent years, the city of Wichita has invested millions in pickleball, a sport described as a mix of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong. The city’s 2022 capital improvement plan included $3 million for a new pickleball complex in south Wichita. The city also added nine pickleball courts to Riverside Tennis Center and decided to convert two tennis courts at Edgemoor Park into six pickleball courts last November.

Sourinthone is part of that investment. He became the city’s pickleball director in March 2022 to lead pickleball programs: from leagues to drills to lessons. And after moving all the way from Nashville to take the position, he’s got big dreams for Wichita and the players here.

“I really want to see Wichita become the mecca of pickleball,” he said in a podcast dedicated to Lao American Sports.

Riverside Tennis Center offers pickleball drills on Tuesday morning for XYZ.
Celia Hack
Sourinthone offers pickleball drills at Riverside Tennis Center on Tuesday mornings.

Sourinthone’s journey to Wichita stretches farther than Nashville. He was originally born in Laos, a Southeast Asian country landlocked between Thailand and Vietnam. Communist forces came to power there several years before he was born, causing thousands of residents to flee.

Sourinthone says his family left when he was just one month old, crossing the Mekong River into Thailand on a homemade bamboo raft.

“My dad was telling me that … we were getting shot at, you know, and we were being missed,” Sourinthone said. “Which is crazy, because again, I'm an infant, so who knows if I was crying or not, making a scene. But … by the grace of God, we made it.”

His family stayed in Thailand for a few years before moving to Nashville in 1986. For young Sourinthone, America brought its own challenges. His parents didn’t know the culture or how to drive. He remembers wearing girls’ clothes because that’s what was given to his family.

“I remembered just being bullied because of my name was long. It wasn't normal. I couldn't speak the language,” Sourinthone said. “To be in those situations, it really makes you look deep down and dig deep.”

Dig deep he did. In the U.S., Sourinthone started playing table tennis — and winning national championships.

“By the age of eight … I was the number one kid in the nation in the U.S. for boys under 10 years old,” Sourinthone said. “So I picked it up pretty fast; just fell in love with it.”

A 1994 copy of the Table Tennis Today magazine pictures young Sourinthone looping and smashing at the U.S. Open.

He stopped playing as a teenager. But when he picked up a pickleball paddle about 15 years later, his table tennis instincts kicked in.

“If you play someone that has table tennis or pingpong background, someone like Noi, they have very good hands,” said Michael Cheung, who has known Sourinthone since high school. "Sometimes when you try to speed the ball up or go past him, he’ll block your balls."

Sourinthone found his way to pickleball in 2017 while working at a Toyota dealership in Nashville. One of his clients invited him to play. After that, he worked his way up through the ranks of Nashville players.

As Sourinthone improved, pickleball became a larger part of his life. He started offering private lessons. He founded a pickleball paddle company.

And in 2021, Sourinthone heard from a friend that the city of Wichita needed a pickleball director.

“I was like, oh, man…” Sourinthone said. “I love Wichita, it's great, but man, it's Wichita compared to Nashville. It's a pretty big difference, right?”

But Sourinthone applied and got the job. When he started in March 2022, his first project was to create city-run pickleball leagues.

“Everything just exploded,” Sourinthone said. “It just exploded.”

Numbers from the city of Wichita show that pickleball court rentals increased nearly 50 percent from 2021 to 2022. Sourinthone says he’s seen interest in some leagues nearly double.

Becky Middleton is a pickleball enthusiast who has lobbied the city to invest in the sport. She said that Sourinthone’s position is necessary to ensure that the growth is sustainable.

“The problem with growth … is that it will fail if it's not managed properly, if it’s not staffed,” Middleton said.

Sherri Dixon met Sourinthone when she joined a league. The two became friends, despite their age difference. Dixon is 75; Sourinthone is 38.

“He said to me one time, ‘Will you play mixed doubles with me on Thursday night?’ ” Dixon said. “Well, I mean, that was just like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can't believe that he's gonna ask me to play with him.’ ”

Pickleball draws an outsized number of seniors, and Sourinthone says his relationship with them is one of his job’s greatest rewards. When his family lived in Laos, Sourinthone says he lost two of his brothers. A third passed away when his family moved to the United States.

“It puts a value on life,” he said. “For me, the seniors … their time is running out more.

“For me to be able to use my talents and give them my time to just play… that fills my heart. And that just makes me realize like, this is purpose.”

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.