Pickleball offers fun way to fitness for all

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Carol Sorgen

The curiously named sport “pickleball” combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping pong, using a perforated plastic ball and a low net. Its popularity has been skyrocketing over the last decade, and there are several indoor and outdoor pickleball courts in the area.
Copyright: Ahturner

Mix together a bit of badminton, ping pong and tennis, and you’ve got pickleball — a game that’s growing in popularity across the country.

“It’s addictive,” said Susan Smolen, who first heard of the game about eight years ago while visiting a friend in Florida. Now Smolen plays four times a week when she’s in Baltimore, and “every day, all day” during the four months of the year she spends in Florida.

According to the USA Pickleball Association (www.usapa.org), pickleball was invented in 1965 in Washington state by Joel Pritchard (a former congressman and lieutenant governor), Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, whose kids were bored with their usual summertime activities.

Pritchard’s property had an old badminton court, but there wasn’t a full set of racquets on hand. Instead, the men improvised and started playing with ping-pong paddles, a perforated plastic ball, and a net that was 36 inches high instead of the conventional 60 for badminton.

Two theories circulate about the origins of the name of the game. According to stories told by Pritchard’s wife, Joan, she came up with the name because the combination of different sports — badminton, ping pong and tennis — reminded her of the pickle boat in crew, where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. Another account, however, says that the game was named after the Pritchards’ dog Pickles, who liked to chase the ball.

How to play

The game can be played either indoors and out (it’s particularly popular in the South and Southwest where it can be played outdoors almost year-round). Games are played to 11 points. You score points when serving, and two out of three games win a match.

You can play singles or doubles, on a court that measures 20 feet by 44 feet (smaller than a tennis court). The paddles are similar in size to those used for racquetball. 

From a backyard game, pickleball has evolved into a sport that is popular not only throughout the U.S. and in Canada, but is growing internationally, especially in Europe and Asia. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) 2015 Participant Report, there are more than 2.46 million pickleball participants in the United States alone.

While popular among older players who enjoy both the social and fitness aspect of it, pickleball is now being taught to kids in middle and high schools as well.

According to Smolen, who is also an avid tennis player, “You have to be pretty fast” to play it well, but pickleball can still be a lot of fun for players at any level.

Where to play

While in Baltimore, the Owings Mills resident plays at the South Carroll Senior Center in Sykesville. The games there are open to registered members of the center. Membership is free, but you must be at least 60 to register.

Diane and Howard Gartner, also of Owings Mills, play at the Jewish Community Center-Owings Mills. (You don’t have to be a member of the JCC to play, but there is a pickleball fee.)

The Gartners, also enthusiastic tennis players, picked up the sport about two years ago. They enjoy the fact that it can be played indoors during the winter months, and you don’t need to join a league. “You just show up and wait your turn,” said Diane Gartner.

The JCC generally sponsors pick-up games three mornings a week, but that tends to change during the summer, when campers are also using the tennis courts.

About 15 to 20 people regularly come to play during each session. “It’s getting more popular as people find out more about it and watch others play,” said Gartner.

Gartner agrees with Smolen that the game looks a lot easier than it actually is, but also observes that you can play at your own pace and your own level. “You can get a good workout, but it’s not as intense as tennis,” she said. “It’s a fun, social activity.”

For a list of pickleball courts in Maryland, visit www.usapa.org/what-is-pickleball-where-to-play-in-your-area.