OUTSIDE: Pickleball — Funny Name, Serious Fun


Funny Name, Serious Fun

Quick, pretend you’ve never heard of Pickleball before — you probably haven’t — and tell me what comes to your mind first.

Dills, Gherkins or Bread & Butters you might say, but you’d be way, way off. Nothing briny here.

Pickleball is actually a sport — a hybrid that blends select elements of the games of tennis, ping pong and badminton — and it’s as addictive as its name is silly.

Pickleball is sweeping the nation in a quick yet slow type of sweep. It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2015 but is just hitting the mainstream in the past few years, and only recently has found its way into Aurora.

As with the invention of many popular games — see Dr. James Naismith and his peach baskets at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, that became the sport of basketball in the late 1800s — a quirky story is at Pickleball’s roots.

In 1965, Washington State Representative Joel Pritchard and friends Bill Bell and Barney McCallum faced the ultimate task, keeping bored children on summer break entertained. So in Bainbridge Island, Washington, the trio modified sports equipment they had laying around to create a game that used oversized ping pong paddles to hit a modified whiffle ball over a badminton net dropped to the ground.

A hit with the kids at the time, the game has found its way into the hearts of an estimated 2.46 million people according to a 2015 Participation Report of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. People in all 50 states play Pickleball according to the USA Pickleball Association, the sport’s 10-year-old governing body, with 9,863 courts in North America and an average of 62 new ones per month coming online in the United States and Canada.

“A lot of why Pickleball is so popular is how quickly anybody can pick it up, even if you don’t necessarily have a racquet sport background,” explained Aaron Holland, recreation specialist for the City of Aurora. “People can generally pick up a paddle and the game moves slow enough that they can get it pretty quickly. It’s also one of those lifetime sports like golf that you can play for a long time.”

As a kid, I took tennis lessons, waged epic games of ping pong with my dad on a table we had in our living room and also played home run derby using whiffle balls, so this was literally right in my wheelhouse.

“A lot of why Pickleball is so popular is how quickly anybody can pick it up, even if you don’t necessarily have a racquet sport background. People can generally pick up a paddle and the game moves slow enough that they can get it pretty quickly.”

Learning positioning, scoring and funky terminology — such as the “kitchen,” a non-volley zone in front of the net — it didn’t take long to pick it up. I quickly built up a sweat and had my surprising competitive nature come out as I held my own as Holland’s doubles partner as we battled two of his co-workers, Ryan and Mike, on one of the two sparkling new courts at Crestridge Park on the corner of Yale Avenue and Elkhart Street.

Games are played to 11 — win by two as in most racquet sports — and both players on a team in doubles serve at least once before the serve goes to the other team. I let my partner down with my frequent shots that hit the top of the net and we lost in three games, but the vigor with which he played attracted the attention of everybody who walked by the park.

So while it appealed to me — a relatively healthy, though embarrassingly out of shape 30-something — it has really taken off among older generations, particularly among former athletes with physical limitations.

Arvada’s Ken Marquardt, known widely as Pickleball Ken, is a former tennis player who had two bad shoulders and discovered Pickleball five years ago through a friend.

It’s taken hold of him and he’s become one of Colorado’s ambassadors for the sport, helping oversee a massive 16-court complex at the APEX Center in Arvada. More than 2,630 people drop by to play Pickleball there regularly, and Marquardt’s mission is to get “absolutely everybody to play Pickleball.”

So far, he’s seen a community of players as old as 91 and as young as 7 playing together and forging a bond that lasts off the court.

“Pickleball changes lives, that’s what makes it great,” Marquardt says with conviction. “We have 18 people who have Parkinson’s and one gal gets the shakes if she doesn’t play five times a week. We have another gal with MS and one who’s had a hip replacement and still plays. I wanted it to be a community and it has become one.”

Arvada and Parker — also a hotbed of the sport — serve as prime models of Pickleball success, while Aurora is still in the early stages of building its Pickleball community.

Besides the outdoor courts at Crestridge, Meadowood Recreation Center features indoor courts so regulars and newcomers get a chance to play the game year-round.

Holland had to cancel the city’s first attempt at a Pickleball tournament in August because of low registration numbers, much to the chagrin of longtime Aurora resident Curt Cowles, a 72-year-old who discovered the sport in March 2014 and has developed an addition to it. He’s lost 14 pounds by playing it and recommends it to anybody willing or able to try.

“Pickleball is perfect for all us broken down athletes, those who’ve had knee replacements and don’t play tennis anymore,” Cowles said. “People are finding out it gives them exercise, socialization, and it gives them good competition for those who want it.”

Holland said the city goes “full speed ahead with Pickleball,” in the winter at its indoor courts, so if you are lucky to enough to find a Pickleball paddle under your Christmas tree, head on over and give it a try. Then go grab a pickle.