If you haven’t heard of pickleball yet, you surely will.
Not only is it the fastest growing sport in the country, according to the USA Pickleball Association, “pickleball” was just added to the Merriam Webster dictionary this fall.
The game is a mix of ping pong, tennis and badminton played indoors and out on a badminton size court. It was conceived in 1965 when three dads — Joel Pritchard, a U.S. Congressman, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum — were trying to perk up their kids one dreary day on Bainbridge Island, WA.
The kids eventually lost interest but the dads got hooked and pickleball — as they dubbed after the Pritchard’s dog Pickles who kept chasing the ball — has been gaining traction ever since.
Though the game has long thrived among seniors, for whom a big benefit is that it’s easier on the joints than sports like tennis, pickleball is recapturing increasing numbers of young players — from middle school to college to adults under 50.
Jeremy Ridky, 39, of Sterling Heights, one of the top competitive players in the state, caught the bug in 2013.
“Oh my God, this is super fun and addicting,” Ridky recalls thinking after taking a beginner class at the OPC (Older Person’s Commission) in Rochester Hills, where members must be 50 and over. He scooted under the age limit because he’d just started a job there.
“I fell in love with it,” says Ridky, OPC’s fitness and aquatics coordinator, who found he could enjoy a sport with less risk of injury than he had playing basketball most of his life.
For Ridky, who just won a gold medal at the 8th Annual Great Lakes Open Pickleball Tournament in Traverse City, the perception that the game is mostly for retirees is wrong.
“That’s the number one misconception, that it’s for old people,” he says. “And that it’s easy. It’s as competitive as the people on the court.”
Youth can trump age if players are at the same skill level, he says. “[But] pickleball levels that out. Older players can give younger players run for the money.”
Pickleball player at Older Person's Center in Rochester.
Among the 3.3 million players in the U.S. today, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, the demographics are changing, says Blair Cremeens, 55, a pickleball coach at Lifetime Fitness in Rochester Hills who holds many hats in the sport including board member of the Southeastern Michigan Pickleball Association and USAPA Ambassador for the district of Eastern Michigan.
“About 75 percent of the players in my league are 50 and older [but] there’s a huge shift now so you’ll see some extreme diversity in age,” he says, calling the game an “age equalizer.” “It’s a great sport for anyone from middle school up to those in their eighties.”
Cremeens recalls a demonstration at a recent tournament: “They had a 100-year-old woman play. It wasn’t super competitive because when your eyesight starts to go it impacts your game. But how cool is it that families can have three or four generations on the court at one time?”
For Cremeens, a perfect example of pickleball today is Anna Leigh Waters, one of pickleball’s top pros. Playing doubles early this year with her mother at the Florida Grand Slam, 12-year-old Waters defeated former Michigan State University tennis coach and U.S. Open Pickleball Triple Crown winner Simone Jardim, 39, and her partner.
Pickleball players at Older Person's Center in Rochester.
According to Justin Maloof, executive director of USAPA, membership is up 450 percent since 2015 while members age 60-plus decreased from 68 to 60 percent. He credits that shift to increasing numbers of public courts — many repurposed tennis courts or new ones — drawing young players and families.
The USAPA also provides grants for community and high school programs and launched a Juniors program in 2016.
Plus, other paddle and racquet players are joining in as prize money increases. The 2018 USA Pickleball Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships had a $75,000 prize, the largest in the sport’s history, says Maloof. “This year’s event will have an even larger purse.”
While pickleball is already booming in states like Arizona, Florida and California, Maloof says Michigan makes up 4.3 percent of their membership with the Great Lakes region (Michigan, Ohio and Indiana) home to nearly 700 pickleball locations and about 2,600 pickleball courts, according to their Places2Play database.
One of metro Detroit’s pickleball hotbeds is the OPC, headquarters for the Michigan Senior Olympics and home to four courts with 48 hours of pickleball a week.
A big attraction is their free one-time class for beginners. Volunteers mentor newbies every Wednesday morning for two hours. It’s open to anyone from anywhere age 50 and above. If you join, it’s just $2 to play.
Larry Sagowitz, 77, a longtime tennis player who quit because of his knees, is known as the program’s “head honcho.” He says he’s taught 1,450 people in his 10 years there, including Jeremy Ridky. “I got him started,” he says with pride.
Among Sagowitz’s students at a recent class was Brenda Vaillancourt. Dressed in black leggings, sneakers and a coral top, her black hair pulled back, the 65-year-old from Oxford was eager to learn the game since spotting players one day walking the upper level track that rounds the courts.
“I always wanted to take the class,” she says, though she knew nothing about it. “I wanted a team sport and I’m competitive.”
She listened intently as Sagowitz instructed the beginners on the basics of the game, from the equipment (short-handled wood or composite paddles and a Wiffle ball) to the boundaries, including “the kitchen,” a no volley zone. The first team to get 11 points wins.
Pickleball players at Older Person's Center in Rochester.
As the beginners play — with the help of mentor David Bowen, 72, known affectionately as “Hippie Dave” — it’s clear the game is no cakewalk.
Hearts pump. Sweat builds. Muscles will most assuredly be sore and egos a bit bruised.
Vaillancourt is a bit of a natural with a strong swing and intent to score. But even as she misses a few balls and struggles to keep track of some of the rules, Sagowitz can tell: “She’ll be back.”
Before she leaves, she admits, though the game is touted as easy to learn, “It was harder than I thought and the rules were a little more involved than I [expected]. It takes time,” she says, then adds: “I’m eager to come back. I want to win.”
Among the oft-repeated benefits of pickleball — that it’s great for all ages and can be as friendly or competitive as you want with strategic elements players liken to chess — one stands out: It’s extraordinarily social and fun.
“Culturally speaking, our sport is very different from most,” says Cremeens of the sport most often played as doubles. “If you play golf or tennis you have to organize who you’ll play with. [With pickleball] you can show up someplace without a paddle or ball. People will take you under their wing.”
Ridky loves that aspect. “It’s very rare to show up and only play with my friends,” he says. “The norm is to play with perfect strangers. To play with everyone.”
Pickleball has had a big impact on Ridky. “I’ve made so many new friends that my whole life has almost shifted,” he says. Now focused on his wife and a daughter, he says he’s got friends from ages 16 to 80. “It’s a by-product of pickleball,” he says. “It produces relationships.”