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Seniors flock to courts to play Pickleball

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It's got a funny name and it's growing in popularity among Minnesota's older residents.

Pickleball doesn't have anything to do with pickles. It's a game similar to tennis but with a slight variation on the rules. Two to four players use paddles, similar to an oversized ping pong paddle, to hit a perforated plastic ball over a 3-foot net on a court that's the same size as a badminton court.

Pickleball moves slower than a game of tennis, so it's perfect for seniors who still want to exercise competitively, which is one reason why the sport has become so popular in recent years, its fans say. In 2012, MPR News called it the "shuffle board of this generation" and this spring it was dubbed the fastest-growing sport in America, according to NBC News.

The sport was invented in Washington state in 1965, but has become increasingly popular in the last 10 years, the Pioneer Press says. About 43 new pickleball courts pop up around the country every year, and Minnesota continues to add new courts, the newspaper notes.

There are about 65 places to play pickleball in the state (see map), with many venues having more than one court, according to the United States Pickleball Association (USAPA). More courts are being added around the state every year.

A few years ago, the Shoreview Community Center painted pickleball court lines on a few outdoor tennis courts to fill demand, and in 2012, the community center added indoor courts so people could continue playing during the winter months, KSTP notes.

Just last week, the city of Shoreview opened six new courts at Bobby Theisen Park, the Pioneer Press says.

As word spreads about the game, demand for courts has grown. John Malmgren, the president of Shoreview Area Pickleball Club, says last winter when he started compiling a list of people interested in playing the sport he had around 40 people signed up. Now he's got over 150 people interested, with organized games being played five days a week, according to the Pioneer Press.

A similar thing is happening across the metro. Jerry Maas, the president of the Southwest Metro Pickleball Club, says they get 30 to 35 people most mornings interested in playing – and there's usually a wait on the courts, according to Shakopee Valley News.

Maas says people play for different reasons, but mainly for the exercise.

“It’s absolutely one of the best things I’ve done in my retirement,” Jerry Peterson, a member of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association's Hall of Fame, told Shakopee Valley News.

Peterson was looking to play something competitive, but initially worried pickleball wouldn't be enough. Now he's a state champion pickleball player.

“I’m 69,” Peterson told the newspaper. “I started playing six years ago. I got serious five years ago. I’ve won a state championship. I’ve gone to Nationals and I’ve played at the Huntsman (World Senior Games).”

Other competitors are looking to compete in pickleball at the Minnesota Senior Games this summer. Pickleball was added to the list of events two years ago, the Pioneer Press says. After the state's senior games, athletes can go on to compete in the National Senior Games, which will be held in Minnesota for the first time next year.

History of pickleball

The sport was invented in a moment of backyard boredom. The United States Pickleball Association says Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington, and Bill Bell, a successful businessman, were sitting at Pritchard's home near Seattle looking for something to do with their families. Spotting a badminton court, but lacking the equipment to play, Pritchard and Bell improvised a game using ping-pong paddles and a plastic ball.

The next weekend they introduced the game to their friend Barney McCallum and eventually created rules. Two years later, in 1967, the first permanent pickleball court was constructed in Pritchard's neighbor's yard. In 1972, a corporation was formed to protect the creation of the sport and by 1976 the first pickleball tournament was held in Tukwila, Washington. Many of the people who particpated were college tennis players who knew little about the new racquet sport.

In 1984, the USAPA was formed and by 1990 pickleball was being played in all 50 states.

Now there are over 2,000 locations to play pickleball in the U.S., not including courts that have been added to private homes, and there are national governing bodies popping up around the world, including in Canada and India.

The USAPA attributes the spread of the sport to its popularity within community centers, physical education classes and retirement communities.

And that name?

In the early years, the game lacked a name. But as the game became more popular, an official name was needed and it was dubbed pickleball.

But accounts vary on how the pickle-less sport got its name. Pritchard's wife says she started calling it pickleball because of the combination of different sports reminded her of the pickle boat in crew, in which oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats, the USAPA says.

However, McCallum says the game was named after the Pritchards' dog, Pickles, who they got a year or two after the game was invented. McCallum says Pickles would chase the ball and run off with it.

“The Pritchards had a dog named Pickles, and you’re having fun at a party, right? So anyways, what the hell, let’s just call it pickleball," McCallum told the USAPA.

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