By Debbi Elmore
A funny thing happened to the funny-sounding game called pickleball. Popularized by older players, pickleball has captured the attention of people of all ages while becoming the fast-growing sport in the United States.
The pop-pop-pop of paddles whacking plastic balls around the Wichita area indicates the trend has definitely reached here. So far, there appear to be enough pickleball courts to go around and long-time players say they welcome the influx of newbies.
“We realize that younger players are the future of our sport,” said Gregg Smith, who took up pickleball after his retirement six years ago.
At the time, Smith had just moved to Wichita from Atlanta and was looking for a way to keep busy. He found it in a listing for
pickleball in the city’s Park & Recreation summer activity guide.
“I went to a session and was really amazed at how
friendly and accepting the people were, and that night I got hooked on pickleball and ordered my first paddle,” Smith said.
“As I got better at the sport I played in a couple of tournaments and realized that tournaments were few and far between, so I started hosting tournaments and got to the point where I was putting on six to seven per year.
Smith became a USA Pickleball Ambassador to Wichita in 2018 and is one of about 1,800 members of the Wichita Pickleball Facebook group. He’s also behind Light Up Edgemoor, which is trying to bring lights to the pickleball courts at Edgemoor Park.
“We have had a lot of success in our goals but there is more to do,” he said.
This year, he noted, more than 200 physical education teachers for USD 250 will receive in-service training in the sport, so that they can in turn teach it to youngersters.
Pickleball was invented in 1965 by a trio of friends on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, Wash., spreading first along the west coast and then south due to the migration of “snowbirds.” (Even the sport’s inventors couldn’t agree on the origin of its name).
The first organized effort to bring it here occurred in the 1990s when the executive director of Senior Services, Inc., attended a conference on aging in Seattle.
“She saw pickleball played at the senior centers there and decided to bring it to Wichita so our male members had a sport they could play since they weren’t interested in yoga or aerobics,” said Chris Heiman, development director for Senior Services.” She ordered the equipment and both staff and seniors started playing” — including many female members.
The game proved so popular that Senior Services added indoor pickleball courts to the Downtown Senior Center during its 2017-18 renovation. More recently the city installed outdoor courts at Seneca Park, located across the street from the center.
Nahola Fitness Center and Pickleball Club in west Wichita was another early promotor of the sport, and Chicken N Pickle, an 8,000-square-foot entertainment complex centered around the game, opened on the east side in 2019.
A website called ictpickleball.com currently lists 18 different locations to play pickleball in Wichita, plus a dozen more in the surrounding area. Seven of the Greater Wichita YMCA locations offer it.
On many of these courts, it’s not unusual to see as many players in their teens and twenties as there are retirees and grandparents. According to USA Pickleball, about 4.2 million people in the United States played the game at least once in 2020, up 21 percent from just one year earlier. Players aged six to 54 make up the majority of players, probably due to the spread of the game in schools. However, 60 percent of “core” players — those who regularly play it — are 55 and older.
Attorney Richard Thompson is one. A friend and tennis partner introduced him to the game in 2017, although Thompson said he “put him off since I thought pickleball was an older folks’ game.”
“He drove to my hometown, Andover, and said we were going to play at the local rec center. He had me play in an advanced group my first time out. I lost most of my games, but really enjoyed it.”
Since then, Thompson has persuaded his wife and sons, aged 21 and 24, to pick up paddles.
“Pickleball is something that varied skill levels can play together and everyone has fun,” Thompson said. “Pickleball is easier on the body than my other main sport, tennis, is very social and easy to find pick-up games. You meet a diverse group of folks and 99 percent of them are there to just have fun and be friendly. Pickleballers are a very welcoming bunch and like to bring newbies into the pickleball fold.”
About that name
The sport’s inventors gave conflicting stories about where the name “pickleball” originated. The best guess seems to be that it was named after one of the inventors’ cocker spaniel, Pickles, who would sometimes run off with the ball.
Pickleball combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong along with a few rules of its own. It’s played on a badminton-size court, with a wooden or composite paddle and plastic ball with holes, using a net that’s slightly lower than the one used in tennis.
ictpickleball.com, a website started by local pickleball enthusiast Ching Brubaker, is a great resource for information about where and when you can play pickleball in Wichita, classes, discounts and more. There’s also a Facebook page called Wichita Pickleball that you can join.
Senior Services, Inc. launches Picklepalooza as fundraiser
Senior Services, Inc. is holding a weeklong festival centered around pickleball as its new signature fundraiser. Called Picklepalooza, the festival kicks off Saturday, Sept. 18 with opening ceremonies at the Downtown Senior Center on Walnut Street.
That will be followed by three days of pickleball matches at Chicken N Pickle, held Tuesday, Sept. 21-Thursday, Sept. 23. The festival culminates with a party at Wichita Country Club on Saturday, Sept. 25.
“Our board of directors wanted a fresh idea for a new signature fundraiser,” Laurel Alkire, executive director of Senior Services, said. “There are a lot of charity tournaments so we thought it would be fun to organize a festival centered around the love of the sport.”
The matches at Chicken N Pickle are not competitive and the festival is open to all ages and skill levels, from beginner to advance. Fidelity Bank is the festival sponsor.
To learn more about Picklepalooza visit https://seniorservicesofwichita.org/picklepalooza/. To purchase tickets visit https://seniorservicesofwichita.weshareonline.org/ or contact Chris Heiman at 316-267.0302, ext. 216.
Senior Services is a private nonprofit organization which operates Meals on Wheels, the Roving Pantry, four senior centers in Wichita, a senior employment program and more.