Pickle what? Silly name for some serious fun!
Pickleball is their game
“Pickle what?” I asked.
“Pickleball,” they said – for the third time.
I had not heard of it and now I don’t know how I couldn’t have. For one, it’s not a name you’ll forget – but more than that, once you play you’re hooked. The game of pickleball, a funny name for some serious fun, was invented by congressmen Joel Pritchard and his family in Seattle during the summer of 1965.
“Ready to play yet?” Not quite. I was content to watch for a while, find out what this game was all about and learn why it had such a unusual name. So far, there wasn’t a jar, can or platter of pickles anywhere in sight but maybe they would be brought out at halftime?
Van Buren, known for its superb historic preservation and quaint shops, also is home to two pickleball courts and a long-time group of dedicated players. The sport is a lively racket game for all ages and abilities that was created with fun in mind. It was designed to be easy to learn to play whether you are 5, 85 or somewhere in between.
Walking up to the indoor court, I heard a game already in progress. Thrack! Wack! Pop! Swish! Sounds of vigorous game play were echoing out the door upon my approach.
“It’s the sound that gets you,” said Jane Moore, 88, long-time pickleball player and all-around active senior. She was right about that. Maybe she had seen me flinching. My blood was pumping and it was the first time in my life I had a real fear of a bright orange Wiffle Ball.
Pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court indoors or outdoors with special pickleball paddles, made of wood or high-tech aerospace materials (they look like large ping-pong paddles). The ball used is very much like a Wiffle Ball (a lightweight, perforated, hollow plastic ball) but slightly smaller. It is played with a lowered tennis net to be more accessible to people of all ages and abilities.
Just because it’s a friendly game doesn’t mean it doesn’t get competitive. The USA Pickleball Association lists 21 cities with 64 courts and more than 500 players in Arkansas. There are state and national tournaments and the game has been incorporated into the Senior Olympics.
Buck Buchanan, a pickleball tournament champion and senior Olympian, credits himself with bringing the game to the area 12 years ago by visiting churches, schools and fire departments to set up courts and teach people about the sport.
“Anybody who tries it just loves it and are eaten up with it,” Buchanan said. He described the local players as not a team but a group of people that come together to get a little exercise. Five of the members are over the age of 80 but you would never know it by the agility they show on the court. I watched and participated with the athletic group that played for two hours with nary a break or drink of water.
Jerry Clopton, who has been playing pickleball since 2009, said he decided to do some personal research on just how much exercise he was getting. He wore a pedometer (step counter) and said when he tallied up all he had walked during a pickleball session, he learned he walks between 5 and 10 miles and didn’t even know it.
“This is growing like wildfire all across the United States,” Clopton said. “It’s a great way for people to exercise, have a good time, socialize and meet a lot of good people.” Clopton has been known to visit doughnut shops in the morning where he finds people sitting around drinking coffee. He invites them to the pickleball court as a change to their morning routine.
Finally, it was time for me to play – after much cajoling from my newfound energetic friends. Pickleball can be played with two or more players. We played four-on-four.
The game, in addition to the modified net and gear, has several key rules that make it more accessible. In tennis, and many net sports, games are often won and lost by the power of the serve. Lucky for me and my teammates that is not the case in this sport. The ball must bounce once on each side before volleys are allowed. This opens the game to more players and extends the playtime for more fun.
I wasn’t psyched about my serves that fell short or the balls I missed for fear of getting hit in the face, but everyone just cheered me (and each other) on with “way to make a mistake,” and many chuckles and cheers were had.
Buchanan, who has won more pickleball medallions and trophies than he cares to count, said that is what really makes the games interesting.
“We make mistakes all the time but we laugh about the mistakes, and laughter is good for the soul,” he said.
“There is competitiveness even at our age but anytime you try to hit the ball and totally miss it – it’s funny – you may feel like a total idiot but it’s funny.”
She kindly took me aside for some practice and after 30 minutes, I was getting in some excellent hits and my game confidence was soaring. Sweaty and out of breath, I was smiling.
Pickleball is played all over the world – through community groups, PE classes, YMCA, retirement communities and more, with an estimated 100,000 people playing in the United States alone.
Almost to my dismay, I never did see any pickles, but my new friends’ boasts about getting hooked on the game were well-founded. When not chatting up strangers about my discovery of this addictive game, I am cold-calling distant relatives to ask them, “Did you know you can look up a court in your geographical area?”
Pickleball meets at 8:30 a.m. Mondays at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, 1019 Pointer Trail, Van Buren, and 8:30 a.m. Wednesdays and Fridays at City Heights United Methodist Church, 102 Fayetteville Road, Van Buren, Ark. To get in a game, call Buck Buchanan at 479-474-2545 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
THIS ARTICLE APPEARS IN THE NOVEMBER 2014 ISSUE OF ENTERTAINMENT FORT SMITH MAGAZINE.