“It’s a big dill.” That quip will be imprinted on t-shirts – green, of course – for pickleball players at Warm Hearth, where a pickleball court was recently constructed. Pickleball is a paddle sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong and is fun, social and friendly. The rules are simple, and the game is easy for beginners to learn. It can develop into a quick, fast-paced, competitive game for experienced players, according to usapickleball.org.
Two or four players use solid paddles made of wood or composite materials to hit a perforated polymer ball, much like a wiffle ball, with 26-40 round holes, over a net.
“All ages and abilities can play and be competitive, including those with some physical limitations,” explains Blacksburg player Lori Miller. “It is played on a shorter court than tennis so a player can be very effective without having to be in prime athletic shape.”
Begun in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Wash., the game started with founder Joel Pritchard cobbling together miscellaneous sports paraphernalia like ping-pong paddles and a wiffle ball to help his bored family pass the time. Voila! A brand-new game was born, and is now one of the fastest growing sports in the United States. The spread of it is attributed to its popularity within community centers, physical education classes, public parks, private health clubs, YMCA facilities and retirement communities.
Many players are active retirees, and Brad Epperley, Director of Parks and Recreation for the Town of Christiansburg, relates seeing college-age students to those in their mid-30s becoming more interested.
Pickleball is affordable and easy to pick up since you only need basic gear to get started. To begin, you need a paddle, a ball, a net and a court to play on. Unlike some sports, like tennis, no dress code is required; basic athletic apparel and comfortable tennis shoes work fine.
The game is fast, making it a convenient way to get some exercise. “Judging by the level of sweat, pickleball is considerably less active than racquetball,” states Coreen Mett, who enjoyed pickleball until her health prevented her from playing. Still, it is a great cardio workout.
“The sport thrives on quickness at the net and good hand-eye coordination,” Mett relates. Miller concurs, adding that learning to control where the ball goes takes practice. Effective communication with your doubles teammate is also key, she adds.
Warm Hearth resident Roland Byrd was the pickleball trailblazer. He read a favorable article several years ago about pickleball. “I did a little drumbeat,” he explains, “and made it louder until Warm Hearth bought equipment and a free-standing net.” Warm Hearth designated a parking lot, painted pickleball lines and moved cars so that residents could play. Fast forward to today, after a resident fundraising campaign, the community has a 70 ’x 30’ asphalt outdoor recreation court for badminton, volleyball, basketball, and, yes, pickleball. There are six to 10 players who frequent the pickleball court or play indoors at the Village Center in inclement weather. Byrd, 84, says it has been a bit difficult to get residents motivated because of health concerns and general inertia. But having the facilities has encouraged others to exercise with this less strenuous but similar alternative to tennis. “We’re getting a few residents a little healthier,” Byrd smiles.
There is also a regular group that plays in Christiansburg. “The Christiansburg Rec Center has been superbly supportive,” Mett says. “A fellow named Paul Schott had been an active player in northern Virginia before he moved to the New River Valley in retirement. He grew the program at the Christiansburg Rec Center, bringing in some of the equipment with the Rec Center furnishing more. The Rec Center marked off boundaries on the floor, provided a place to store equipment and reserves mornings on two of the four courts.”
Residents also play outdoors at Depot Park during good weather, as the pandemic has caused some indoor facility issues. Epperley indicates one goal is to begin holding clinics for beginners, as well as for intermediates who want to enhance their skills. He is working with Carter Turner, a local professional pickleball player, on this project.
At the Blacksburg Rec Center, open gym time is scheduled around other programs, and they provide equipment. The schedule changes in different seasons, with up to 10 people allowed and reservations required (due to COVID-19 guidelines) for the two courts that are available. “It’s general play depending on who shows up,” Miller says. “And, it’s free!”
Last but not least, how in the world did the game get its odd name? According to co-founder Barney McCallum, they named the game after Pritchard’s dog, Pickles.
Text by Jennifer Poff Cooper
Photos courtesy of Warm Hearth Village