Pickleball serves up fun and fitness for people of all ages and abilities

Ask a group of pickleball players about the sport and prepare for them to recruit you to play. 

It won’t matter if you tell them you possess no athletic skills or experience. It doesn’t matter if you explain you don’t have the equipment. They’ll offer you lessons, loan you equipment, and make sure you don’t leave the room without the schedule.

Pickleball players in Bay County are quick to invite new people to join the sport. Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the nation. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) declared the number of pickleball players is on the rise, increasing 158% over three years.

Bay County fitness facilities report skyrocketing growth here too. Fitness facilities in this area started hearing requests for pickleball courts around 2017.

The three courts at the Bay County Community Center are busy six days a week. Here, Jeff Lynch and Michelle Kulas play on one court while Ross Jones and Don Walsh play on a different court.Today, Bay County Recreation Coordinator Beth Trahan says she sees around 100 pickleball players come to the Bay County Community Center every week. 

Inside the 800 John F. Kennedy Drive building, three pickleball courts sit inside one gym. Leagues play on the courts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Drop-in play keeps the courts busy on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The full schedule is posted online.

Players constantly change partners at the Bay County Community Center. A rule board on the wall explains how players rotate in and out of play, specifying that no one plays more than two games in a row. In between rounds, players wait on a bench.“It’s been really positive for us in our building to get this many people through on a weekly basis,” Trahan adds.

Across the river at the Dow Bay Area Family Y, Carly Mindykowski sees the same trend on the facility’s four indoor and two outdoor pickleball courts near the 225 Washington Ave. building. The schedule changes periodically, but is posted online.

Jeff Lynch waits as Michelle Kulas hits the ball during pickleball league play at the Bay County Community Center.“We probably average at least 25 or 30 people at a time most weekdays,”  Mindykowski says.

“Every weekday, we always have two courts open for four to five hours. On Thursdays, (pickleball) gets priority. They get all four courts for five hours. Especially in the winter, we’ll have four courts running and 20 people sitting and waiting to play.”

Three pickleball courts fit inside one basketball court at the Bay County Community Center. Pickleball is played on the courts Monday through Saturday.There also are courts at Carroll Park in Bay City and Delta College.

Cristen Gignac, Director of Recreation and Facilities for Bay County, attributes the popularity of the sport to several factors. It’s affordable, accessible, social, and fun.

Ann Lynch serves the ball.“All of these things, the 55 and better population is really looking for,” Gignac says.

Age is no barrier, say both Mindykowski and Trahan. They each see players in their 80s routinely playing pickleball. At the Y, Mindykowski sees kids playing too.

Minimal equipment is needed to try pickleball. At the Bay Area Family Y and Bay County Community Center, equipment is available for new players to rent or borrow.“It is great cardio, but you don’t feel like you’re doing a big, long run,” Mindykowski says. “It’s similar to tennis, but it’s a smaller court. You’re not running back and forth.”

Trahan reminds players, though, that pickleball is still a physical activity and they should use caution. Stretch and warm up before taking the court. Maybe don’t race to catch every ball.

Pickleball is a fast-growing sport. In three years, the number of people playing the game has grown by more than 158%.It’s difficult to pinpoint the number of pickleball injuries that occur each year. However, the American Medical Association and National Institutes of Health websites each offer articles pointing to a myriad of potential injuries and ways to prevent them.

Gignac adds that one reason for the injuries is pickleball often brings people back into athletics after an extended break from physical activity.

Fans of pickleball say it offers opportunities for recreation, fitness, fun, and social interaction.“People who have been later in their career and haven’t been exercising or early retirees and they weren’t exercising and now, all of a sudden, they have something they can do that’s fun, that’s within a group, it’s social,” Gignac says.

If you want to try the sport, Trahan offers lessons for $10 an hour. In the lesson, which lasts about 45 minutes, she teaches basic skills such as rules and how to serve. 

About 100 players a week take advantage of three pickleball courts inside the Bay County Community Center. Here, Ross Jones and Don Walsh play pickleball on one court while Jeff Lynch and Michelle Kulas play on a neighboring court.A pair of court shoes that aren’t worn outside are the only equipment players must provide. She has balls and paddles to loan for the lessons and to get started on a league.

After the lesson, she sends you to a beginner league to hone your skills.

Ann Lynch faces off against Ross Jones and Don Walsh.“Everyone does have a really, really good time,” Trahan says. “We have a group of them that are they play on Fridays, they go out to dinner together. It’s very social.

“It’s not a very expensive sport to play. For a $40 or $50 racket and some shoes, you’re good to go,” Trahan adds. “Just come and try it.

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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at editor@RouteBayCity.com