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The Preposterously Popular Pastime That Has Nothing to Do with Pickles

If you haven’t heard of pickleball, you will! It’s the fun new sport taking over the world. Well, okay, maybe not the world, but it’s sure getting popular here in the U.S. Pickleball, it seems, is as fun and friendly as its name implies. According to the USA Pickleball website, the game was invented by congressman Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum, and Bill Bell in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, WA. 

Many people wonder about the origin of the name. Joan Pritchard, Joel’s wife, named the new sport. The University of Washington had a top-tier rowing program. The regattas pit the best teams against each other. Afterward, the leftover “spares” from multiple universities competed in a just-for-fun “pickle boat” race. She thought the new game combined bits of other games and decided that ‘Pickle Ball’ was an appropriate name.

Topeka native Eldonna Coats is the USA Pickleball Kansas District Ambassador. She started playing pickleball 15 years ago. After volunteering to promote the addictive sport in Topeka, she then expanded to the district level, and now covers the entire state. “It’s a fun game,” she said. “Once you start, you don’t want to quit. Over the last five years, I’ve taught over 400 people to play.”

Coats, who met her husband on the pickleball court 12 years ago, says part of the reason the sport is so popular is its social appeal. “During open play, you meet lots of people as you rotate. The courts are smaller (roughly a third the size of a tennis court), so there’s plenty of opportunity to interact.” 

Coats’ friend, Susan Hoge, Pickleball Coordinator at SportZone in Topeka, confirms the sport’s addictiveness. “Eldonna and I played softball together,” Hoge shared. “She introduced me to pickleball, and I was just immediately hooked!” She says the pickleball community is a friendly group. “You can show up anywhere in the country, and just ask to join in and people will tell you how it works and include you in the community.” Hoge said she and her husband planned a road trip to meet their kids and grandkids in Panama City Beach and stopped at pickleball courts along the way to play. Facebook communities make it easy to locate groups and see schedules. “It’s like having ready-made friends in every city!” she laughed.

Making new friends is one of the fringe benefits of pickleball. “Playing pickleball has led to a lot of other social offshoots,” said Hoge. “We have formed other groups with friends we’ve met through pickleball. My husband has a group of guys and gals who go on bike rides and we are part of a bocce ball group and a group that plays cards as well.” 

So how did this mash-up of tennis, ping-pong, and badminton get so popular? “It started with the retired crowd,” Coats said. “Then the younger segment stepped in.” Games are short and quick, so there’s time for interaction. The rules are easy to learn and all ages can play. “I’ve seen a grandma and grandson playing,” Coats said. “My mother learned to play at 81!” There’s really no limit to its mass appeal.

The rules may be fairly easy to learn, but don’t assume it can’t get competitive. While most play on a recreational level, Coats says there are two professional pickleball leagues. In fact, Wichita boasts four of the top-ranked players in the world! 

The cost of entry is low. “All you need is a good pair of shoes, a paddle and a couple of balls,” Coats said. “And you can play year round with indoor courts.” If you’re interested in learning how to play, Hughes Courts (725 SW Orleans in Topeka) offers free beginner lessons at 6:00 pm every Wednesday through Labor Day (weather permitting). Players can usually follow up lessons with a beginners round robin on Saturdays as well. 

Combine its ease of play, social appeal, and welcoming community, and is it any wonder it’s the fastest growing sport in America? Maybe pickleball should come with a warning label - WARNING! Pickleball may be habit forming. May cause severe cravings which can result in accidental exercise and unintended social connections.