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In a pickle

North Liberty Pickleball mixer grows each year
Ruth Baker and Duane Miller partner up for a game of mixed doubles in Pickleball during the July 6 mixer at Penn Meadows Park. (photo by Lori Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– It’s a unique group of people who are delighted to find themselves in a pickle.
Local Pickleball aficionados hosted their fifth annual North Liberty Pickleball summer gathering at the Penn Meadows Park tennis courts, a sort of invitational tournament that is more fun than competition, and includes a potluck picnic and social time. Games are played round robin-style so players mix with others from all over the state.
About 65 people attended, from towns as far away as Dubuque and Des Moines, Forest City and Mason City, according to co-organizers Kathy Breese, co-ambassador for Pickleball in Johnson County along with Duane Miller of Coralville, and Steve Stone, U.S.A. Pickleball Association (USAPA) ambassador for the Des Moines area.
“When I got started in the game and ran into these people four years ago, we’d meet here on the fourth of July and we had four courts set up. They were mostly locals,” said Stone. “But this game grows so rapidly. In four years, we now have more than 60 people. It’s almost to the point where we don’t have enough courts.”
Invented in 1965 in the back yard of the late U.S. Congressman Joe Pritchard of Washington, Pickleball is a combination of tennis, badminton, racquetball and ping-pong, played with two or four players on a court one-third the size of a regulation tennis court. Its paddles are similar to racquetball racquets, made of wood or high-tech composite. The sport is portable, easy to learn and simple to play for any age and ability level. It has also been one of the fastest growing sports in the U. S. and across several Canadian provinces, according to the USAPA, with an estimated 100,000 active players to date and sanctioned national tournaments.
That is certainly true of the sport in the Corridor region. The North Liberty Recreation Center schedules indoor courts for Pickleball five mornings a week, and the courts are always in demand.
“We need courts,” said Miller. “We usually only get two courts inside, and during the winter we have 20 people show up but only eight can play. Yes, we’re growing. In 2009 we only had 20 or 30 on our roster last year and now we have more like 130.”
Anybody 18 and older is invited to participate, whether in the regular North Liberty games or the annual Pickleball mixer. The top player in the world is 25 years old.
“But he’s an anomaly,” noted Stone. In the regular North Liberty group, the youngest player is 23, while the oldest are in their mid- to late-70s. “The oldest player I’ve watched play was 86, but there are a few 90 year olds and even a couple of 100-year-olds in the game,” Stone said.
And anyway, age is only a number in Pickleball.
“The bottom line is to have funn, and I spell it with two ‘N’s, because you can never have enough,” said Stone. “It’s a very social game. We have all levels on one court.”
That’s because Pickleball is less about athletic dominance than about skill development, Stone explained.
“The game is one of finesse and control. Smashing the ball is not how this game is won or lost. Most kids play aggressive sports, but you give me four teenage kids on this court, and within an hour, I’ll have them playing finesse Pickleball because they learn with a smash, they can’t win,” Stone said. “They also have to learn how to play with each other, so this game works for learning social skills and how to play together as a team.”
Breese said anyone is welcome to give the game a try, regardless of age or experience.
“No matter if you’ve never picked up a paddle or what. You come and we’ll teach you,” Breese said.
Pickleball has also become part of middle school and high school physical education curriculums, and even as a competitive, school-sanctioned sport, Stone noted.
“My job as district ambassador is to get with the school systems and show them how the game is played. In St. George, Utah, they have it in their school system and it has the same status as football, basketball and baseball.”
Just as the sport is comfortable for a range of ability levels, so does it satisfy different degrees of competitiveness, from the casual Pickleballer who picks up a paddle now and then, to serious players who compete in doubles and singles tournaments all over the country, pickling for medals, points and cumulative rankings. The USAPA’s ratings committee oversees a rating system with specific guidelines and a regulated appeal process. Various levels of achievement in sanctioned tournaments are weighted with points, used to determine a player’s seeding in tournaments as well as one’s overall rating at the end of each calendar year. Seven states have their own Pickleball Association websites, including Iowa. The Iowa Summer Games, Iowa Senior Games, and the Quad Cities Senior Games all include Pickleball as a competitive event, with winners qualifying to advance to the national level.
Finally, Pickleball has a way of bringing people together in an active, healthy way.
“Another beautiful thing is the generation aspect of the sports,” said Stone. “I have friends who play with grandma and grandpa, their son whose is in his 40s, and he brings his two high school tennis championship daughters. I’ve even seen four generations playing together. In high school basketball or baseball, it’s grandma and grandpa watching their grandkids from the stands. Here, they are out there playing and having fun. You can’t find another sport where that happens.”
Miller and Breese have been keeping stats on the number of players who sign up to play on courts in the Coralville, Iowa City and North Liberty area. Breese said she will share the information with local Parks and Recreation commissions.
“We are still here, we’re growing and we’re not going anywhere,” said Breese.
Except, of course, to the courts for the next Pickleball game.