Couple enjoys a game of pickleball. Photo by Brent Fuchs.
Couple enjoys a game of pickleball. Photo by Brent Fuchs.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] game invented to keep the kids out of the adults’ hair on a rainy day in Bainbridge Island, Wash., has grown into a popular national sport with estimates of 2.46 million people participating in it.

Pickleball has nothing to do with those canned specialties but everything to do with having fun.

A paddle sport that combines some elements of ping pong, badminton and tennis, pickleball has grown into a national pastime for people of all ages.

“The popularity came less than five years ago when large numbers of baby boomers reached the retirement age of 65,” says Vicky Noakes, the Oklahoma City ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA). “It spread in the retirement communities because it was easy on the joints and bones, keeps everyone active and is extremely social.”

The USAPA, a good starting point for learning about the game and places to play in Oklahoma, lists 20 locations with courts in Oklahoma, including Ponca City, Stillwater, Edmond and Yukon, along with smaller cities like Pryor and Grove.[pullquote]It gives people, especially an aging population, the opportunity to exercise without feeling like going out to exercise.”[/pullquote]

A few theories abound on how the sport got its name, but the common one is that it was named after Joel Pritchard’s dog Pickles. Pritchard, along with Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, invented the game over the course of one summer in 1965.

Noakes says that the name itself probably is a bit of a drawback for the sport.

“Someone has to be very secure with themselves to try a game called pickleball,” she says.

The game is played on a court similar to that for badminton, with a 36-inch net, a seven-foot non-volley zone and a ball similar to a wiffle ball.

Blake Weichbrodt, director of rehabilitation and fitness at Total Health in Stillwater, calls pickleball “highly-addictive” and adds, “There are reasons people have a passion for it. One, it’s a fairly easy game to play, and variations of skill level are so great that you can find someone to play with. It’s a lot easier than tennis – it’s hard to find tennis players in your same competition range. And in pickleball, there’s more variety in the skills levels. The not-as-good and pretty good can play with the very good.

“Two, it gives people, especially an aging population, the opportunity to exercise without feeling like going out to exercise,” he adds. “We have people playing literally for four to six hours, but most people play for an hour minimum.”

Total Health, a community-based fitness facility, associated with Stillwater Medical Center, has three groups who play the sport.

“The morning group is entry level, moderately competitive, with encouraging and lighthearted play,” says Weichbrodt. “The evening group is a little more competitive and expects more out of each other. The noon group is highly competitive, and there are a lot more grunts and groans.”

Noakes, a teacher and coach at U.S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City for 27 years, loves spreading the knowledge of pickleball.

“I love teaching the game to new players,” she says. “Plus, there’s the competition, the challenge of learning and improving in a sport and gaining new friends that I would have never met except for pickleball.”

Tulsa County Parks Director Richard Bales doesn’t play the sport, but he says some of his staff do.

“It is easy on your body, the court size is small and you can play several games in an hour,” Bales says.

Like Total Health, the Parks department has plans to build more pickleball courts.

“Age does not matter, skill level does not matter,” says Bales. “All you need is a willingness to learn.”

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