Players of all ages, skill levels catch Pickleball fever
It’s a sport with a court, a ball, a paddle and a serve.
This isn’t tennis, badminton or ping pong, though.
One of the fastest-growing activities in the United States is Pickleball — a game which incorporates different pieces from similar recreations to create a fun, fast-paced environment for players young and old.
Locally, Pickleball has gained steady traction. There are emerging clusters of players who take to Dodger or Butler Courts in the summer and the Fort Dodge Community Recreation Center in the winter.
“Our group usually has anywhere from eight to 10 people, and we play Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings,” said Roxanne Kuhlman of Fort Dodge, who took up the sport nearly two years ago. “Dianne Krebs first invited me; we play golf together. I wasn’t very good at first, but I quickly fell in love with it.
“It’s such a terrific experience — something you can really enjoy with friends and get a pretty darn good workout in the process.”
Pickleball was invented in the United States in the 1960s and formally incorporated about a decade later. A full-fledged rule book was published by the United States Amateur Pickleball Association in 1984.
The gradual ascension of the sport continued into the turn of the millennium, and by 2009, the USA Pickleball Association held a national tournament with nearly 400 competitors from 26 different states.
According to the sport’s official website, “Pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court: 20 feet by 44 feet. The ball is served diagonally — starting with the right-hand service-square — and points can only be scored by the side that serves.
“Players on each side must let the ball bounce once before volleys are allowed, and there is a seven-foot, no-volley zone on each side of the net (commonly referred to as ‘the kitchen’), to prevent ‘spiking.’ The server continues to serve, alternating service courts, until he or she faults. The first side scoring 11 points and leading by at least two points wins. Pickleball can be played with singles or doubles.”
Pickleball paddles have a maximum length of 15.5 inches to 17 inches; width of 7 inches to 8.25 inches; and depth of 1.25 inches. A specially-designed wiffle ball is made of hard plastic and weighs between 0.78 and 0.935 ounces, while measuring 2.874 to 2.972 inches in diameter. Nets are 36 inches high on the sides and 34 inches in the middle.
Today, an estimated 3.3 million people actively play in the United States alone, and there are over 40,000 members of the USAPA.
“We’ve had groups approach us looking for some indoor space (as the weather turns), and we’ve been more than willing to accommodate,” said David Pearson, Executive Director of the REC in Fort Dodge. “On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8-10 a.m., (the basketball gym courts) will be ready for them. I know they’re very open to having newcomers come and try it out.
“Down the road, we may offer leagues or tournaments. For now, I think everyone is kind of figuring out and gauging the (overall) interest level of the community. But it’s definitely growing.”
Tim Flattery, a 2004 St. Edmond High School graduate who now lives in West Des Moines, was an all-state athlete for the Gaels who later pitched at Iowa Central Community College and the University of Northern Iowa. The 35-year-old was introduced to Pickleball when Smash Park opened in West Des Moines nearly four years ago.
Smash Park has Pickleball courts, as well as shuffleboard, bags, bocce ball, ping pong, board games, and a full bar and restaurant.
“My uncle first got me going; my mom, uncle and their family practically lived at the Dodger Courts playing tennis when they were younger, and now they all love (Pickleball),” said Flattery, whose mom, Debbie, is also a regular in Fort Dodge. “I started playing a couple of times a week and really got hooked. I found a partner and started eventually entering tournaments.”
In the Des Moines area, interest in Pickleball has exploded in recent years. Flattery said that at Smash Park alone, there are leagues going four nights a week from 5-9 p.m. At the Aspen Athletic Club in Des Moines, action runs from 5 a.m. until noon three days a week. And many former tennis surfaces and skateparks have been converted into Pickleball courts throughout West Des Moines, Waukee, Ankeny and surrounding communities, Flattery added.
“It’s really just one big community,” Flattery said. “Everyone has everyone’s number. I could go out right now with my paddle and find a game right away.”
Pickleball is the ultimate strategic sport in Flattery’s eyes.
“It’s a lot less about power and more about shot making and positioning,” Flattery said. “The biggest hurdle when you get started is just having an understanding where you should be and how to place shots with the right amount of spin.”
Flattery played multiple times per week before the recent birth of his son, Fitz. He’s been a regular in a league of many former Fort Dodge residents who now live in the Des Moines area.
“It’s just really interesting as you make your way up (the ranks) as far as the different layers of ability,” Flattery said. “You find out in a hurry what you were able to get away with shot-wise or strategy-wise (with certain groups) doesn’t always hold up. When you’re going up against really good players, you have to work hard just to score. Games can be over 20 minutes long just to get to 11 (points and a win).
“It’s a really, really great game. A lot of fun.”
Norine Paulson, a retired Fort Dodge Community School District teacher, picked up the game this past July when her friend, Melanie Vogt, invited her to try it out.
“My husband (Terry) tells me I’ve become obsessed with the game, and he is right!” Paulson said. “It provides an opportunity to get a great workout, compete again and socialize. Several retired teachers play, so it has been a blast reconnecting with them. We have all met a lot of great new friends that feel like ‘family.’ It has definitely enhanced the quality of my life.
“I learn so much from the experienced players. They are super helpful in guiding and coaching us. Another great benefit is it is an inexpensive sport to play.”
Kuhlman, a nine-time city golf tournament champion, admits she takes the sport seriously to help satisfy her competitive nature. She plays locally, but also goes to the Humboldt Recreation Center, where games and leagues are also common and three courts are regularly used.
Kuhlman added there are “great set-ups that I know of” in Sac City, Carroll and Belmond as well.
“Really, you get out of it what you want,” Kuhlman said. “That’s the best thing about my experiences: it’s always been a very inclusive environment. Doesn’t matter what your skill level is — if you’re interested, (fellow players) will take the time to help you along. We just have a lot of fun.
“It’s awesome to both play and watch. The strategy, the movement, the spin you put on the ball — a lot goes into it. Spin and placement is so key.”
Pearson is hoping the Pickleball momentum will continue to build around the area.
“I know groups were started by some older folks, but young people are catching on, too,” Pearson said. “There are physical and mental advantages to playing, and it also takes good hand-eye coordination. We obviously encourage anything that keeps a person active.
“Here locally, the groups are great at getting new people oriented and helping them learn the rules and regulations. It would be great to see the sport really take off into the future (in the Fort Dodge area) the way it has in other communities across Iowa, and really, the entire country.”