Pickleball a rising star at recreation centers

Those looking for a way to stay fit and have fun in the new year may want to try their hand at pickleball, a paddle sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong.

To get you started, the city of Clearwater is offering free instruction Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays 10 to noon during January at the McMullen Tennis Complex.

Never heard of pickleball? Well, here’s the juice. First off, no pickles are harmed in the sport.

It is thought by some that the game was named after Pickles, a dog that belonged to a former U.S. Rep. Joel Pritchard of Washington state who is one of the co-inventors of pickleball. Apparently the cocker spaniel would chase the balls and hide them in the bushes.

However, his wife, Joan, an avid rower, has said the game was actually named after a “pickle boat,” the slowest boat in the race, and that the dog was named after the game.

Either way, in the mid 1960s, Pritchard and some friends were looking for a way to keep their families entertained during the summer. Using an old badminton court to play on and some handmade equipment they lowered the net to 36 inches and made up some new rules, and a game was born.

Today pickleball ranks as one of the fastest growing sports in America. It’s taking off in other parts of the world, too, including India, Singapore and New Zealand, according to the USA Pickleball Association, which was formed in 2005 to promote the sport.

The USAPA’s Places to Play Map now features more than 2,000 locations, with an average of 43.5 new places added each month.

Shaun Beasley, supervisor of Clearwater’s Long Center, said he put pickleball on the schedule after two Canadians requested game time a few years ago.

“What’s pickleball?” he remembers asking them.

Today it is played four days a week at the Long Center, drawing about 30 people a day during winter months when it is most popular.

“It’s not as strenuous as tennis, so it appeals to seniors,” he said. “But we have all ages — players in their 20s and some in their 80s.”

Dunedin, Safety Harbor and Largo also offer open games through their recreation departments. Tarpon Springs is planning to offer a program soon. Prices vary from free for those with resident cards to a few dollars per session.

The game is appealing to many because of its relatively simple rules and the fact that it can be played indoors or outside on a court. It’s easy to learn but can provide a fast-paced, challenging game for more-experienced players.

Pickleball courts are similar to badminton courts, measuring 20-by-44 feet, and accommodating both singles and doubles play.

Today’s pickleball paddles are smaller than a tennis racquet but larger than a Ping-Pong paddle. Originally, they were made from wood, but more-modern versions are made of lightweight composite materials. The plastic ball has holes similar to a Wiffle Ball and travels at one-third the speed of a tennis ball, according to the USAPA.

Pat Ehlers, 73, became a pickleball devotee four years ago. She plays four days a week, on average.

“It’s a game everyone can play. All you have to be able to do is walk. It’s very inexpensive and there’s a lot of camaraderie. Come to the Countryside Recreation Center in Clearwater and you will hear cheering, yelling, and screaming.

“It’ll be us,” she said, “having lots of fun.”

Contact Terri Bryce Reeves at [email protected].

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