‘Social’ by nature, pickleballers looking forward to dedicated courts

Area pickleballers Barb Paulsen (right) and Carolyn Jasper

Why cramp your thumbs, scorch your eyes viewing at a backlit screen or get a crick in your neck to be ‘social?’

Instead, pick up a wooden, carbon graphite or fiberglass paddle, slightly larger than a ping pong paddle, and socially engage with people ages 5-95 on a badminton-sized court playing pickleball – America’s fastest growing sport.

Invented in the summer of 1965 by a trio of Bainbridge Island, Wash. dads, Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum combined aspects of tennis, badminton and ping pong to come up with the unique athletic activity – eventually gaining its current moniker from Joel’s wife Joan Pritchard as a reference to the thrown-together leftover non-starters in the ‘pickle boat’ of crew races.

Nearly 60 years later, pickleball offers players young and old nothing to be sour about.

“I love it,” Muriel Pater said during the Pipestone ladies’ morning session (7:30-8 a.m.) at the Pipestone Area High School tennis courts Tuesday (Aug. 8) – National Pickleball Day. “I’m kind of a morning person anyway; I get up, come play, and I love it – I’m addicted.”

A plethora of people, of all ages, abilities and levels of athleticism appear to be ‘jonesing’ for the game as well, as 36.5 million people have picked up a paddle this year, in the U.S. alone (2023), with a current growth rate of 158.6 percent.

Tuesday morning saw 20+ people, ranging in age from 16-80 take to the newly resurfaced tennis courts at PAS for the morning session, where mostly retired women convene each day to start their day off sweating, smiling and spanking the 2.874-2.972-inch, single-color, rigid Polypropylene sphere with 26-40 holes on its surface.

“I played tennis for 35-40 years, but about 3-4 years ago I couldn’t find anyone to play with anymore,” noted 80-year-old Carolyn Jasper, one of the charter members of the current women’s morning group. “We started campaigning for pickleball and it’s really grown from there.”

It wasn’t that the sport hadn’t been seen in Pipestone before that, but it took a group of retirees to organize a regular time to meet and locate a space to play the fast-paced volley-oriented game.

“Me and Coach (Troy) Bouman taught it in school and ladies played at rec center, but they never had enough room to have a lot of matches going on at the same time,” said former PAS Phys Ed. Instructor and coach Ann Miller, another of the early-morning diehards. “After I retired, I thought I could play it a bit, go share it with others and, in my mind, it really took off when the ladies who were paras (school paraprofessionals) that played volleyball for me – Gloria Hurd (Smidt), Barb Wallerich (Paulsen), Leann Merrill (Quist) started playing with us. They would tell people… Janine Aaland and sister-in-law Becky Uilk… and it just grew by word of mouth.”

Pater, who recently moved back to town from Holland, not only enjoys starting off her day with the pop of a paddle, but also has enjoyed rekindling and forging new friendships through the sport.

“It’s a jump-start for the rest of the day, absolutely, and I get my exercise in every day; so, it’s perfect for me,” she said. “I’ve been reconnecting with friends since moving back to Pipestone and making new friends, just been the best thing. And we have more and more ladies coming out every week. I grew up before the time of girls’ sports in the area, so I didn’t do much. My kids were always active and my husband always played softball, and now grandchildren play sports – a real sports family.”

Ann Fredricksen

And by necessity, growth in numbers requires growth in space.

Current Pipestone pickleballers have labored through years of sharing space at the city and school tennis courts that have yet to meet their specific needs, and most are tired of either chalking out the smaller pickleball court dimensions over existing tennis courts or laying down rubber guides that rudimentarily mark the service, side and ‘kitchen’ lines. So, the news of a $90,000 pledge from JBS Pipestone and an Aug. 17 community service effort from John Deere to remove the existing plastic-tiled tennis surface at Harmon Park comes as a breath of fresh air for area pickleballers in search of dedicated courts where they can pursue their passion.

“JBS did funding for the courts, John Deere is picking up the tiles at no cost and then, from there, the public works guys will remove an existing shed to allow for the removal of the tile,” Ewert Rec Center Director Robert Petersen said. “From there, we’ll go through the bid process with engineers for the surfacing. We hope to have all of that done this fall before the final, permanent, surfacing early next spring.

“I think everyone is excited about having 10 new courts dedicated to pickleball; and with 10 courts there should be no reason to have to reserve courts – plenty of room for America’s fastest growing game. We’ll also have fencing between courts and netting around the area to serve as a wind-break but allow spectators to view the matches. It’s such a great sport that can be played by anyone, ages 0-end-of-life… such a great way to stay active.”

Whether it’s a group of 2-100 you don’t need a partner, as pickleball can be played as singles or doubles.

“And that’s something I really like about our group,” Laurie Fruechte said. “You don’t have to plan to get a partner, you show up and everyone plays. If you can’t be there tomorrow, it’s no pressure. We try to rotate partners every time and we have all different levels of skill… beginners, some who have played a lot… but it’s always friendly and fun.”

However, the early bird usually gets its worm, as Miller noted her group’s excursions to Sioux Falls, S.D. often required queueing up for the next available court.

“We have been to tournaments over at Riverdale Park (six courts) where they’re lining up at the break of dawn,” she said. “You put your paddle in a notch on this PVC pipe and, as soon as a court opens up, it’s the owners of the paddle/paddles in the front of the line that are… next up!

Dawn Schneider

“In the winters we’ve gone to the Pentagon in Sioux Falls and done the same thing; they have pickleball Monday-Thursday with an early start. We tell them we’re coming and they let us join… often grab lunch and make a day of it. And we’ve also gone to Avera’s complex where they have 12 beautiful outdoor courts.”

As far as competition, which is not currently paramount in Pipestone, there are eight levels of player rating in the game – going from 1-2 skill rating to 5.5+ as defined by USA Pickleball (usapickleball.org).

“I don’t think we’d be able to compete at any higher level than 3.0 because it requires knowledge of a partner’s movement and anticipation and we… don’t have dedicated partners right now. That might change when we get our courts and see the sport taken off even more here in Pipestone. We’ll have to wait and see, but it is very exciting.”

That doesn’t mean it’s strictly about fun and exercise.

“Having a good serve is always a good place to start,” explained Pater. “Only the serving team scores points, so you don’t want to give it up easily. It takes some practice, but we’ve all come a long way.

“We’re all good friends, but when we play against each other we get a little competitive; we all like to win but it’s about fun and the camaraderie of getting together.”