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Pickleball becomes huge hit at community center

November 25, 2014
By CHUCK?BALLARO ( , North Fort Myers Neighbor

Mike Welter of Cape Coral has built his life around a sport that is a combination of tennis and ping-pong, and he's not the only one.

Pickleball has become all the rage at the North Fort Myers Community Center. What started as a hearty group of six people and one court has become a huge hit, with more than 60 players coming in for the four sessions per week the center offers.

While many who play the game are seniors looking to stay in shape, there are some younger players who have fallen in love with it.

Pickleball is a sport in which two or four players use solid wood paddles to hit a perforated ball, similar to a Wiffle ball, over a net. The sport shares features of other racquet sports, with the dimensions and layout of a badminton court, a net and rules similar to tennis, and equipment similar to ping-pong.

It was invented in 1965 in Washington state by former U.S. Congressman Joel Pritchard, who found his and a friend's family bored one day and decided to play badminton.

There were no shuttlecocks, so they used a wiffle ball instead, lowered the nets and made special paddles from plywood. A game was born.

Legend has it the game was named after Pickles, the family dog. However, Joan Pritchard, Joel's wife, said it actually refers to the last boat to return with its catch.

From those humble beginnings 50 years ago, pickleball has become one of the country's fastest growing sports that has become more geared toward seniors. Towns such as The Villages are said to have as many as 10,000 people who play.

"The game caters to retirees. It's easier to play than tennis, it's quicker, it's indoors (though there are outdoor courts as well) where it's air conditioned, and it's easier to get going," Welter said. "We have people who couldn't play tennis anymore. They come here and they're addicted."

Welter is one of them. He became state champion at last year's Senior Olympics

The community center originally offered pickleball once a week when it first opened. Before that, many played elsewhere, having to go as far out as Estero and Punta Gorda to play.

But as Welter said, the number of players, as well as the quality of play has increased significantly, showing the area can support the game.

"The level has gone from the beginner to advanced players just from playing three or four days a week," Welter said.

A Thursday visit to the gym told you all you needed to know about the sport. It was packed with six courts with many, who turned out at the crack of dawn as the center opened, sitting in the bleachers, waiting their turn.

Many of them are regulars, with new players taken in easily. There is also camaraderie among the players, who often go out for pizza after playing.

Suki Wilson, of Fort Myers, has played the game since February. She said Welter and others have taken to the beginners and made her feel at home.

"I'm an old tennis player, but I had a rotator cuff issue. The camaraderie is wonderful and I'm able to play again," Wilson said. "Pickleball people are the most fun to play with. Everybody is in it together and I love that."

Terry Back, from Pine Island, said friends got him interested in the game. He now plays about 20 hours a week, wherever there's a court open, and has made many friends.

"I play when I go to Huntsville, Ala. It's well-suited to seniors because you don't get many injuries. It keeps you moving and you meet new friends," Back said. "This most congenial place to play is right here."

And not everyone is retired. Kyle Yates, 19, has become a star in the sport, having won the 19 and over men's doubles at the national championship in Arizona.

Yates said pickleball is much more of a finesse sport than tennis, so you need the skill and intelligence to play.

"I played ping-pong and tennis and my uncle told me about the sport. I played and I loved it," Yates said. "At the top level, there's more strategy and more cool shots you can hit. That makes it fun."

Pickleball is played Monday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.; Thursday from 7 a.m. to noon; Friday from noon to 2 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

There is no charge to play, but you must be a member of the community center, which is a one-time, $10 fee that is good for life.

For more information, contact the recreation center at 533-7200.



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