This unique sport is three games in one, and it’s catching fire with active adults around our region.
Tiane Olsen had never heard of pickleball until nine years ago, when she and her late husband, Ole, started spending winters in Arizona. Olsen and her sister, Jean, who was also staying there, happened upon a pickleball game being played at a nearby recreation center, and decided to give it a try.
It was love at first volley.
“It was mostly a group of men who played in the morning,” says Olsen, a former bowler and softball player. “We learned from them, and then started a women’s group in the afternoon. Right from the start, I was hooked. Many people say it becomes addicting. Once you play, you want to keep playing and playing.”
Originally created as a backyard pastime, pickleball is now an organized sport represented by national and international governing bodies. The United States Pickleball Association estimates there are more than 100,000 active participants in the country. People of all ages play, but the game is especially a hit with seniors.
Pickleball is a combination of tennis, pingpong and badminton. It’s played on a badminton-sized court, using paddle racquets and a whiffle ball that moves about one-third the average speed of a tennis ball; like tennis and badminton, it can be played in singles and doubles matches. The net is two inches lower than other racquet sports, to encourage faster play.
“It’s very similar to tennis,” says Jeff Ryder, athletic supervisor for the Huntley Park District. “It’s a quick, good, compact workout that doesn’t cover the distance you would in tennis. It can improve footwork and reaction time. Given the court size and the nature of the game, it’s very easy to learn how to play.”
Pickleball was born during the summer of 1965, at the home of State Representative Joel Pritchard in Bainbridge Island, Wash. The story goes that Pritchard and two buddies returned home from golf one Saturday afternoon and were looking for something to do. They attempted to set up a badminton game but couldn’t find the shuttlecock. Instead, they used a whiffle ball, lowered the badminton net and used homemade paddles made of plywood found in a nearby shed.
It’s unclear how they came up with the name “pickleball,” but the Pritchard family later owned a dog named Pickle, who liked to chase errant shots and hide the ball.
The ball is served underhand from behind the baseline. Points are earned by the serving side only and are scored when the opponent fails to return the ball or hits the ball out of bounds. The first team to score 11 points, leading by at least two points, wins.
“The most important part of the game is the serve,” Olsen says. “The serve comes easy if you can get the ball in play. I can always tell who’s going to be good at pickleball. If they can get the serve down right away, they’ll be fine. An underhand serve sounds so simple, but not everyone can do it. It takes some practice.”
Eventually, Olsen wasn’t content to play pickleball only during her months in Arizona. In 2006, she returned home and headed to the Huntley Park District, where she and another enthusiast, Prisilla Scott, talked to Ryder about starting a pickleball program.
“I give Jeff a lot of credit,” Olsen says. “He knew nothing about the game, but was willing to listen. We explained what we wanted to do, and he gave us the equipment, nets and a place to play.”
“The nice part for the park district was that it really fit a need for us as well,” adds Ryder. “It ties in with our slogan of ‘Recreation for Generations.’ We’re busy with basketball and volleyball programs after school and into the evenings, but we were looking for something to offer during the daytime. Pickleball has not only had a positive impact on the participants, but it’s given them an opportunity to see what else the park district has to offer in terms of programming.”
At the Huntley Park District, pickeball matches are played in the rec center gym, 12015 Mill St., on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 9-11 a.m., and Monday and Friday afternoons from 1-3 p.m. Ryder says about 40 participants have signed up for the program. Cost is $25 for residents and $38 for non-residents, for a three-month session. A free two-hour lesson covers the basic rules and game play. Lessons must be pre-arranged through the park district.
Huntley isn’t the only suburb where this game is being played. The St. Charles Park District offers pickleball six days a week at the Pottawatomie Community Center, 8 North Ave. In addition to open play, which draws guests from Elmhurst, North Aurora and Glen Ellyn, the park district hosts annual spring and Thanksgiving tournaments that attract participants from as far away as Rockford and Madison, as well as some nationally ranked competitors.
“We enjoy seeing older residents being physically active,” says Lara Piner, supervisor at the Pottawatomie Community Center, who remembers playing pickleball in high school gym class.
During the warmer months, games are held at Langum Park, 999 S. Seventh Ave., on the tennis courts with the lines taped off. Piner says she has a mailing list of more than 50 pickleball players. The cost to play at Pottawatomie is $3 a day, or $25 for a 10-time pass. Play at Langum Park is free.
“We have a couple of different groups of players who either prefer playing inside or out,” says Piner, who fields calls from people who played in Arizona or Florida, and are looking for a game back home. “Some people play Tuesday and Saturday, while others prefer Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. They’ve found their niche and do their own thing.”
At the Hoffman Estates Park District (HEPD), new and experienced players are invited to join drills and drop-in play at indoor and outdoor courts. Six outdoor courts are available during spring, summer and fall at Highpoint Park, 1704 Glenlake Road. The courts are lighted for night play and equipped with wind screens.
Drop-in pickleball is available indoors at Prairie Stone Sports & Wellness Center, 5050 Sedge Blvd., on Mondays from 9 a.m. to noon. A pickleball league plays there on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Fees are $15 for three visits, and equipment is provided.
Also in Hoffman Estates, players over age 50 are invited to play with the Active Adults Club on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon at the Triphahn Center, 1685 W. Higgins Road. The HEPD also offers lessons for youth age 12-19, and adults over 20. In July, HEPD hosted the first annual pickleball tournament of the Six County Senior Olympics.
In Huntley, Olsen and her friends play up to five afternoons a week. In addition to the park district, Olsen was one of the people who helped launch a pickleball group at Del Webb Sun City, the adult community in Huntley where she lives.
When it comes to pickleball, Olsen is all in. In addition to her local involvement, where she teaches the finer points of the game to newcomers, Olsen is a card-carrying member of the U.S. Pickleball Association. Her sister, Jean, helped to launch a pickleball program at a YMCA where she lives in Oskaloosa, Iowa.
In addition to the fun and friendships that are formed, Olsen has another incentive for playing as much as she does. Last year, she lost 75 pounds, thanks to a change in diet and, she says, playing pickleball.
“I couldn’t get into an exercise routine by going to the fitness center, so I started playing more pickleball,” she says. “I just made my mind up that I was going to do it. It’s such a good cardio exercise, and a chance to meet a nice group of people. Pickleball has made a difference in my life, and it’s fun.”