A game named after a pesky cocker spaniel has increasing numbers of people taking to the court armed with paddles and a hollow plastic ball with holes. And many say once people start smashing, slicing and volleying the ball, the rallying cry of pickleball can be impossible to contain.
"They call it the pickleball bug," says Sally Hudgins, Mid-Michigan's official pickleball ambassador from the USA Pickleball Association
, and a key volunteer for the pickleball program at the Michigan Athletic Club
. "That's very accurate. I started playing a few years ago and was immediately addicted."
Sandy Sweckard jumps into the conversation to help explain the allure of the court-based activity. She exchanges comments with Hudgins at a pace similar to the back-and-forth dynamic of the game.
"You're constantly laughing when you're playing," says Sweckard, a former physical education teacher at Eaton Rapids. "You get into these rallies, and when you're done, you say 'oh my gosh, that was fun.'"
The two friends and pickleball advocates are not alone in their passion for the game.
Simone Jardim is among the rising number of millennials catching the pickleball bug. Jardim, the former collegiate tennis champion and women's tennis coach at Michigan State University, recently traded her racket for a pickleball paddle.
Jardim says her conversion was immediate. In April, the 36-year-old, two-time All American tennis doubles player became the first women's pro champion at the inaugural U.S. Open Pickleball Championship
in Naples, Florida, and broadcast by CBS Sports Network. Shortly after bringing home the hardware, Jardim put the ball in motion and accepted a post to help develop, promote and teach pickleball in Florida through the East Naples Pickleball Program.
"I'm not quite sure why I started playing, but I tell people it was one of the best things that ever happened to me," says Jardim who took up pickleball in January 2015. "You go out there, you play, and you hit the ball hard and laugh. Then you go somewhere afterward and talk. Pickleball isn't just growing, it's exploding."
Finding the epicenter
Jardim recently conducted two advanced classes for pickleball aficionados through the City of East Lansing—one of mid-Michigan's epicenters for the paddle sport. Workshop organizer Gary Beaudoin says Jardim's instruction and enthusiasm reflects the increasing interest in the sport, and helps people warm up to the idea that pickleball isn't just for the retiree crowd.
Beaudoin, a member the East Lansing Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission,
decided to make Greater Lansing his home in 2009 after spending his professional years serving as a teacher and principal in northwest Michigan. A graduate of Lansing Everett, Beaudoin and his wife were happy to return to the area, but were missing one thing: a friendly, lightly competitive sport to play with friends.
"Someone told me to try pickleball," says Beaudoin. "I did and I was hooked."
Beaudoin started out playing pickleball at the Michigan Athletic Club. He took lessons, studied instructional videos on YouTube, and became an independent ambassador of the game. He discovered the beauty of a sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong and can be played both indoors and outdoors. Played with a paddle and a plastic ball, pickleball takes place on a smaller, badminton-sized court with a modified tennis net, encouraging players to engage in banter and light conversation.
At the MAC, Beaudoin made friends with ardent pickleball followers who organized mixers and events and built a core group that steadily grew and led to the hiring of dedicated pickleball coordinator and recent USA Pickleball Association champion, Daniel Howard. Along the way, Beaudoin also checked out pickleball groups in Williamston and at the Westside YMCA
Inspired by the momentum he was seeing, Beaudoin contacted the City of East Lansing in 2014 and bounced around the idea of starting a year-round pickleball group through the East Lansing Hannah Community Center
. He told them about the MAC. He told them about the popularity. And before long, he was working with city staff to configure two courts with nets in the Hannah Center gym.
"The first Friday I had scheduled for play no one showed up," laughs Beaudoin. "But within a week, there were 20. The following week there were 30. I started an email list. By the end of the winter we had 100 people either on the list or playing."
Now, fewer than two years later, the program through the City of East Lansing has two official indoor courts, set gym times for play during the week, and offers beginning, intermediate and advanced classes. Several underused tennis courts at Patriarche Park
have also been recently reconfigured into six pickleball courts, enabling outdoor play.
"I think it's so popular because it's just something you can enjoy doing right away," says Beaudoin. "I played tennis for two or three years but never got to a point where I felt accomplished. I played golf and just felt frustrated. Pickleball can be rewarding and just plain fun."
Getting in a pickle
Local pickleball advocates say Mid-Michigan's growing fascination with the game is simply reflective of a larger nationwide phenomena. Considered one of the fastest growing sports in America, pickleball was invented more than 50 years ago in 1965 by a group of dads living on a small island near Seattle, Washington.
Looking to assuage the summertime boredom of their kids, Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum devised handmade paddles, shortened the tennis court, and came up with simple rules. Game folklore has it that even the family cocker spaniel got involved, chasing, retrieving and sometimes hiding errant balls. Searching for a name, the families and players decided on "Pickleball" in honor of their beloved dog Pickles.
Now, more than five decades later, the USA Pickleball Association claims more than 150,000 members, and sights more than 4,100 places to play in communities nationwide—up 81 percent from 777 locations in 2010. Michigan alone sports nearly 200 pickleball locations and about a half-dozen more in the works, as well as the random repurposed tennis courts.
Meridian Township has pickleball courts on the radar, as well as Court One Athletic Clubs.
Chief Executive Officer Corey Randall says the club plans to have six dedicated indoor courts ready by winter 2016, as well as eight courts for pickleball competitions and events, at Court One North. Blueprints are underway to expand outdoor courts at their Okemos location to include several pickleball courts.
Court One plans to teach classes and build a following of regulars who find time for a morning or afternoon games, a quick game with a partner during lunch, or an after work activity instead of happy hour.
"I know when I get out of work, I would like to do something active and social to get beyond that feeling of having been cooped up all day in my office," says the 37-year-old Randall, who caught the pickleball bug about a year ago. "You don't have to be a great athlete to be able to return the pickleball. You can move as much or as little as you want and still succeed. It’s social. It's addicting. And it's just become a phenomenon."
Ann Kammerer is the News Editor for Capital Gains and writes occasional features.
Photos © Dave Trumpie
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.