by Whitney Kenerly

The fastest-growing sport in the country with over 150,000 players nationwide has come to the Triad. Pickleball, a racquet sport with a quirky name, is attracting local players by the dozens, and city-owned facilities are barely able to keep up with the demands for courts.

So what is this sport and why is it so popular? Pickleball is a blend of tennis, badminton and Ping- Pong. It’s played on a surface about a third the size of a tennis court, and uses many of the same rules. The ball is a lightweight wiffle ball, and the racquet is a square paddle.

The sport was invented in 1965 by then Washington State Representative Joel Pritchard, and for years players claimed that the name came for the Pritchard family dog, a cocker spaniel named Pickles who would chase after the wiffle ball during games. Pritchard’s wife Joan later clarified that the name actually came from the term “pickle boat,” which is used to describe a boat with a rowing crew from a mix of teams. Pickles the dog was adopted and named after the game of pickleball two years later.

Fifty years after its invention pickleball is experiencing a surge in popularity largely due to its appeal to senior citizens. According to the AARP, baby boomers in this country are starting to turn 65 at a rate of nearly 10,000 per day. But getting older today isn’t the same as it was for previous generations, and baby boomers still have a desire to remain active.

It’s not surprising that the origin of the pickleball boom can be traced to active adult retirement communities in Florida. A massive community outside of Orlando called The Villages is famous for having 140 pickleball courts with lines of people waiting to play each day.

Greensboro resident Martha Hudson discovered pickleball during a trip to Florida with her husband Don Whicker. Despite having undergone knee replacement surgery, Hudson found that she could still enjoy playing the game.

Hudson is sort of the archetype for the classic pickleball player: she’s between 65 and 75 with a few injuries, she discovered the game in Florida, enjoys the social and physical benefits, and plays with her husband.

A few years ago, Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department’s Community Recreation Services Division Manager Phil Fleischmann also noticed what was happening in the sunshine state.

“We saw that it was a trend nationally,” said Fleischmann. “I know it is a very popular sport in Florida and other places that have outdoor facilities.”

“It’s easier physically than tennis,” said Hudson. “It’s not as demanding on 70-year-old knees and joints.”

On Friday, Hudson and Whicker played together during the mixed doubles portion of Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department’s inaugural Greensboro Summer Pickleball Classic tournament at the Greensboro Sportsplex.

Greensboro Sportsplex General Manager James Goodyear has seen the sport grow in popularity since the facility started offering clinics.

“We have the largest facility in the area right now with eight courts,” said Goodyear. “We’re looking to expand to about twice that size.”

Goodyear said that 92 people from four different states played in the Greensboro tournament, and that he heard a tremendous amount of positive feedback from the players.

Many of the local players got into the game when the facility started introducing the sport three years ago through the RestFit program on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Players were hooked by how fun the low-impact game was. Pickleball doesn’t require players to run as much or as quickly as tennis, but it’s still a workout.

Players note that the sport requires a good amount of agility and eye-hand coordination, and that it has helped them improve their balance. Strategy can also help.

“It think it’s good for you mentally,” said Hudson. Frank Nelson came down to the tournament in Greensboro from Smith Mountain Lake and astutely observed the different strengths and weaknesses of all the players during practice. He laughed while joking about sizing up opponents wearing knee braces and wrist guards, but said that you have to be careful not to underestimate a player.

“It’s a game of errors more than anything,” said Nelson.

“If you come out blazing and start making mistakes, then you’re gonna lose.”

At 88, Tom Harmon still enjoys playing pickleball competitively. Harmon played tennis for over 40 years, but started looking for alternatives to staying active after he underwent open heart surgery eight years ago. Now he loves playing pickleball twice a week with his 72-year-old wife.

“It’s a good game for older people,” said Harmon. “It’s less hard on your physique, but still good exercise.”

“It’s fun,” said Dan Fisher, who has been playing pickleball for two and a half years. “It’s also great exercise.”

Retired nurse and self-described “pickleball nut” Brenda Parsley is able to play competitively after sustaining serious injuries from her shoulders down to her knees.

The Jamestown resident plays pickleball so often that she regularly drives to High Point and Winston-Salem in order to use the facilities.

“I’m a stubborn old woman,” said Parsley. “I’ll be 70 in November.”

When Parsley first got into pickleball, her doctors had never heard of the sport. Even though many of the players at the tournament praised the sport for being good for seniors or people with injuries, not one of them had been introduced to the sport through a medical professional.

“I’m not sure that it’s big enough here yet that doctors would have heard about it,” said Fleischmann.

After her knee surgery, Hudson told her doctor about the sport. She said that while her doctor had never heard of pickleball until then, he was able to design a rehabilitation program for her around the game after watching videos from the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) website.

According to JoAnnah Michael, the District Ambassador for the NC Mountain District of USAPA, health care professionals in Asheville have caught on to the game, and many sports rehab centers will tell recovering patients about pickleball.

“It’s a great avenue to slowly get back into sports,” said Michael.

Michael herself had hip surgery three years ago, and found pickleball last year while looking for a sport that she could still do with her injury that would also help her stay in shape. At 55, Michael is healthy and glowing with a better figure than many 20-year-olds.

While Michael enjoys playing competitively, she appreciates that the sport has other benefits.

“You can go at your own pace and make it a social thing, or you can play competitively,” said Michael.

“It’s still a quick game for competitive interest but it’s a much smaller court than in tennis and the ball doesn’t move as fast, so it’s much more manageable,” said Fleischmann.

Steve Walker and his wife Bonnie have been playing pickleball together twice a week for over two years, and have enjoyed meeting new people. Steve Walker said that he has also enjoyed playing people of all ages.

“I think the oldest guy I played with was 92,” said Walker.

Husband and wife team Hudson and Whicker similarly enjoy the camaraderie that comes with pickleball.

“You meet lots of nice people playing pickleball,” said Whicker.

“In pickleball, you tend to get to know the people who play,” said Hudson.

The sport is made more social by a style of gameplay that somewhat levels the playing field so that newcomers can rotate into games with veterans.

“One thing that’s really nice about it is you can have a good time with all levels of skill,” said Harmon.

Michael said that one of the best things about pickleball is that it’s a multigenerational sport. She told a heartwarming story of watching an 82-year-old grandmother teach her young grandsons how to play, and said that it’s not uncommon to see several generations of relatives on the court together.

“We get a lot of families,” said Michael. “It’s a good sport for older people but my grandsons love it too,” said Whicker.

Fleischmann and Goodyear both recognize the importance of helping seniors like Harmon to stay active physically and mentally. For the tournament in Greensboro, the 60 to 69 division was the largest.

Fleischmann said that there is a growing national trend of medical professionals recommending a “prescription for parks” to help seniors stay healthy.

“We know that remaining active and engaged lowers the instance of chronic illness and disease,” said Fleischmann. “We have a commitment here in Greensboro to serving everyone in our community through our recreation programs and facilities.”

The Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department has also made a commitment to keep pickleball affordable for seniors or other people on fixed incomes. The current price for players who attend the RestFit program to play pickleball on Tuesdays and Thursday is $1 per visit. Goodyear said that the Greensboro Sportsplex is looking into offering memberships for regular players, and that the membership fees would be comparable to the current costs.

“We’re trying to keep it as low-cost and affordable as possible,” said Goodyear.

Players new to the sport can borrow equipment from the facility as they start out, but the balls and paddles are fairly inexpensive. A standard wood pickleball paddle costs around $30 at Dick’s Sporting Goods, and wiffle balls are around $15 for a pack of six.

The equipment is also lightweight and easy to carry, reducing the risk of injury for players. Someone could whack a wiffle ball straight into your arm from across the court, and you probably wouldn’t even get too much of a bruise.

Both the Greensboro Sportsplex and the Smith Senior Center try to offer pickleball at times that would be the most convenient for retirees. The RestFit program on Tuesday and Thursdays runs from 12:30pm to 3:30pm.

Goodyear said that he regularly sees 20 to 30 people on any given Tuesday or Thursday. He expects that number to grow after the tournament, and he’s looking to expand the program to even more people.

“We’re looking at offering some clinics and classes maybe once a month, and by doing that it will help accommodate some of the newer inexperienced players,” said Goodyear.

“We’re always looking for things that are new and different to bring people in Greensboro to keep them active and engaged,” said Fleischmann.

But the demand for more pickleball facilities is also growing. Many of the players at the tournament said that they not only attend every pickleball program at Greensboro Sportsplex and the Smith Senior Center, but that they also travel to other facilities whenever possible.

Harmon is one of the players who often finds himself waiting for a court to open up.

“Plenty of times we need more places to play,” said Harmon. “So I’d like to see more courts.”

“We have a shortage of venues to play,” said Michael.

“It’s growing so fast that we can’t keep up with it.”

Fleischmann said the Parks and Recreation Department is aware of the demand.

“That’s something that we’re looking into,” said Fleischmann. “We’ve got to find the right configuration in terms of room sizes and material used for the surface.”

Pickleball works best on an indoor wood court where the ball can bounce properly, so Fleischmann and Goodyear have been looking at ways to maximize the amount of time devoted to pickleball without interfering with the schedule for basketball or other sports that require a similar playing surface.

The Smith Senior Center has applied to be recognized as a Center of Excellence, and if designated as such, will be eligible for grant funding that could then potentially help expand the pickleball program there. Fleischmann said that he is optimistic that the center will receive the honor, and that he should know by the end of the year.

“We’re pretty sure that it will be,” said Fleischmann. “It does meet the criteria for that.”

Goodyear is already looking forward to next year’s Summer Pickleball Classic, and hopes to add an 18 to 35 division for younger players.

“I think next year with be even bigger and better,” said Goodyear. !