By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– Pickleball isn’t just a fun way to exercise, meet new people and stay healthy.
It’s also the country’s fastest growing sport, one of the newest events to be added to the national Senior Olympic Games and the latest craze in parts of Puerto Rico.
On July 1, Pickleball was also the focus of a one-day tournament at North Liberty’s Penn Meadows Park tennis complex, with participants who traveled from all over central and southeast Iowa to get in the game.
Between 40 and 45 people withstood temperatures above 90 degrees and sweltering humidity for the chance to paddle their way to victory against fellow Pickleballers from Ankeny, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Dubuque, the Quad Cities, Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty.
They ranged in ages from 28 years to over 85.
Without exception and regardless of their ages, the most common attribute any true Pickleball player uses when describing the game is “addictive.”
A cropped-down version of tennis, badminton, racquetball and wiffleball combined, Pickleball is played with two or four players on a court one-third the size of a regulation tennis court. The ball is perforated plastic– much like a wiffleball, so it moves slower– and the paddles are similar to racquetball racquets, made of wood or high-tech composite.
Its portability, affordable equipment, simple rules and ease of play for any age and ability level has made Pickleball one of the fastest growing sports in the U. S. and across several Canadian provinces, according to its governing organization, the U.S.A. Pickleball Association (USAPA)– and also, incidentally, game show host Alex Trebek, who posed the question in a recent Jeopardy! episode.
Pickleball was invented in 1965 in the back yard of the late U.S. Congressman Joe Pritchard of Washington, when Pritchard, some friends and family members were looking for something to do one summer afternoon. Using an old badminton court, a wiffle ball and makeshift plywood paddles, the Pritchards found the game so much fun they introduced it to others. According to Wikipedia, the name of the game originated with Joan Pritchard, who said it reminded her of a pickle boating crew, where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.
From backyard pastime to national competition, from senior centers to grade school gym classes, the USAPA estimates that more than 100,000 people in the United States regularly play Pickleball today.
Seventy-five year old Patty Goetsch, of Davenport, started playing five years ago and hasn’t quit since. It is compelling for many reasons, she said.
“People at any level, of any ability, can play,” said Goetsch. “It’s good for eye/hand coordination and balance. Even people with arthritis can play, so it’s a great sport for seniors.” Goetsch said at her age, her physician was concerned with her bone density and was preparing her to take a bone-strengthening supplement like calcium. But when Goetsch started playing Pickleball, her bone density improved so much she no longer was a candidate for medication.
Besides, she said, it’s so much fun. She now plays Pickleball for two and a half hours three times a week.
“Walking is boring and repetitious. Pickleball is action, all the time.”
Jolane Otto of Bettendorf said the game is being taught in middle schools and high schools as a lifetime sport option.
“You can play indoors or out; and even outside, you can play in almost any weather,” Otto said, as she and her fellow participants weathered the scorching heat of July 1. “Why do we play in the heat? Because we’re addicted.”
Kathy Breese, North Liberty, is the local Pickleball co-ambassador for the USAPA who organized the one-day North Liberty tournament, now in its third year.
“The goal is to bring visitors in, and to have a nice place to play Pickleball,” said Breese. The North Liberty Recreation Center also offers indoor Pickleball courts as well as the outdoor courts in Penn Meadows Park. Breese noted the courts are reserved at specific times for Pickleball players.
“That doesn’t happen everywhere,” said Breese. “The city has been very supportive of getting this sport going.”
And Pickleball players are the sport’s biggest advocates, of course. Myrna Clark, of Coralville, even took equipment back to her family in Puerto Rico and introduced Pickleball as a backyard activity.
“I was worried nobody would like to play it,” said Clark, “but they couldn’t stop.”
This year marked the first time Pickleball was a sanctioned sport in the Senior Olympic Games. Even in its first year, Pickleball had 62 competitors, more than any other event in this year’s Senior Olympics, Otto noted.
Steve Stone, 54, is also a USAPA ambassador for the Des Moines area and was a three-time gold medal winner in the 2012 Iowa Senior Olympic Games, held June 14 through 17. Stone brought home golds in the males single competition, the male doubles competition and the mixed doubles competition. Other area medalists include Duane Miller, Jill Miller, Ron Stiers and Mrya Clark of Coralville, Ruth Baker and Michael Untrauer of Iowa City and Matt Kaschmitter and Janet Calvert of North Liberty. Several of the players will also compete in the upcoming Summer Iowa Games beginning July 15.
Stone said he is even working on getting a Pickleball license plate established for Iowa motorists.
As Jolane Otto said, interest in Pickleball just keeps growing.
“It is rampant on the coasts,” she said, and also in southern states where many retirees spend their summers. “It’s finally filtering into middle America, and we’re taking it up with alacrity. It keeps us young.”
Patty Goetsch echoed that sentiment.
“We’re growing younger as we grow older,” she said.
In short, these players think Pickleball is a pretty sweet deal.