The distinctive sound of paddles at the Sanford Pentagon striking pickleballs started tentatively at 8:30 on a recent Friday morning. By 9 a.m. the two gyms designated for this activity were rattling like popcorn in a microwave.
On two basketball courts — that’s space for six pickleball courts — about two dozen people were playing doubles matches. It’s like this often at the Pentagon, which has become a winter-time mecca of sorts by offering pickleball free-of-charge from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday.
“It’s a very social sport,” said Larry Plucker, president of the Sioux Falls Area Pickleball. “Our motto is ‘Fun, Friendship and Fitness.’ Various people are here for different reasons and they put those three terms in a different order based on what they’re after, but regardless, it’s definitely a social event.”
Colleges are putting it on their intramural list of activities. It is also part of the physical education curriculum in elementary school, middle school and high school. That means the next generation of players will be familiar with the game when they reach adulthood. Most now started out playing other sports growing up.
“I don’t like telling my tennis friends this but now I’m playing a little more pickleball than tennis,” said Linda Erickson, who began playing at the encouragement of her sister. “It’s competitive, it’s fast-paced — just really fun.”
Pickleball in Kissimmee
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), 75 percent of core players are 55 or older. Given that they’re teaching youngsters to play, that’s a number that is likely going to go down. It remains, however, an increasingly popular activity for those 60-and-over.
Good Samaritan Society-Kissimmee Village has outdoor courts — Kissimmee is in Florida after all — that get steady year-round play.
“It’s important to keep the body moving, but it’s not just about the physical benefits,” said Chris Kazen, Kissimmee Village wellness director. “We have people here who met through the Good Sam community of pickleball. It’s an opportunity to get outside for social interaction. It’s physical wellness and social wellness. Maintaining hand-eye coordination and balance is also part of this.”
One of the location’s most enthusiastic proponents is Cal Chato, a 65-year-old who moved to the area from California in 1990.
“I fell in love with it as soon as I started playing,” said Chato, a drummer who counts kayaking and billiards as other favorite activities. “When I moved here I thought I should try it out. I did and they embraced me.”
As is often the case with this sport, those who play regularly become recruiters. At Kissimmee Village, Chato follows that profile, serving as a pickleball ambassador to fellow residents.
“One guy I play with is almost 90 years old — his knees are basically gone, but in a doubles game if it’s somewhere in his wingspan you’re going to eat the ball — he’s that good,” Chato said. “People need to be careful of their own risk-taking but you don’t have to have a lot of mobility to enjoy it.”
Chato describes the scene like this:
“We love the game,” he said. “We’re cutting up, we’re laughing, ribbing each other — it’s a great time for fellowship. We’re not so serious that anyone would ever feel bad about how they play. We play Monday through Thursday — we’re very fortunate to have a place like this where we can get together. This is a game where people might think they should shy away from it but I have found when people do try it, they find out there’s no pressure and they love it.”
The welcoming culture is as much part of the sport’s identity as its funny name. It’s that way in Kissimmee and it’s that way in Sioux Falls, where this time of year it’s an indoor activity.
About four years ago, Patty Lenz’s friend was pestering her about trying the sport. While Lenz — who played sports in high school and college — may have needed a pep talk for that initial introduction, there was no encouragement needed thereafter.
“I got up off the couch that night and walked into the building,” Lenz said. “Everybody was so gracious. I grabbed a wooden paddle out of the bucket and then someone let me use theirs. From that point on, I’ve been playing. Everyone was kind and generous. I was done sitting on the couch. And here I am.”
And so were a lot of others on this particular Friday morning. Levels of experience, expertise and age varied widely with the open courts filling in quickly as the morning progressed. In 2016, Sioux Falls’ pickleball club had 160 members, Plucker said. Now it’s up to 350.
“That’s not the result of one person,” he said. “That’s the result of board members and the club consistently introducing the sport to their families, friends and co-workers.”
It was that way for Tim Christopherson, a retired jewelry store owner from Vermillion who now lives in Sioux Falls. Christopherson’s friend picked up the game in Arizona and when he came back, he encouraged Christopherson, also a racquetball player, to try it.
On a tennis court in Vermillion with a pickleball court boundaries taped down, he got his first taste. When Christopherson moved to Sioux Falls, he quickly found the pickleball players. He often plays five times a week.
Pickleball is just plain fun
“My Sanford doctor told me my health was remarkable because of pickleball,’” Christopherson said. “You watch it and you think that maybe there isn’t that much fitness involved. But there is. And you never hear anyone say ‘Oh no, I don’t want to play with that guy.’ You have some bantering back and forth but it’s very good-natured.”
Craig Nelson was a hall-of-fame high school track coach at Luverne High School in Minnesota who moved back to the area after retirement. A former racquetball player and runner, he was looking for less painful activities after knee replacement surgery. He found it in pickleball. And a whole lot more.
“I couldn’t run any more without pain and this was a great sport to pick up,” he said. “It’s more lateral — side to side. It gets me out of bed in the morning knowing I’m going to be able to play two hours of pickleball. It’s always good competition at a lot of levels and people who are willing to help others learn the game. But the biggest thing is that it’s just plain fun to play.”
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