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Pickled!


An unlikely sport is courting the 812


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Georgi is about to coast the ball right over the net. This net is officially for Pickleball, but a tennis net works just fine. / Photo by Kaleigh Howland.

Ka-TINK, ka-TINK, ka-TINK. Soft pops spill into the otherwise silent hallway. Then a sharp crack echoes off the concrete walls. Pushing open the heavy gym doors, we discover the source of the sounds — 10 players deep in games of pickleball before the sun comes up on a Saturday. Yellow wiffle balls collide with neon paddles and bounce off the polished basketball court, punctuated with whoops of success and grunts of disappointment. We catch a glimpse of black sky through the single window in the Brown County YMCA gym. Outside, a lone bird sings in the parking lot to signal the dawn. But for these devoted players, the day has already begun.

Still a little bleary, we climb the stairs to watch the three courts from an overlook. Players make hurried introductions with each other as they rotate among the courts, but even brand new partners tap paddles after each point. One player, taller than anyone else on the court, hits a ball too close to his partner, and the shot whizzes past her glasses, but she laughs even before she finishes jumping out of the way.

Just as we steel ourselves to head down to the court, a middle-aged woman with short brown hair and a blue tank top calls up to us. “Hey, do you want to play?”

Two other women who had been sitting out offer to teach us newbies the basics of the game, handing over their own paddles and picking up battered wooden backups for themselves. We voice some doubts about our pickleball-playing attire. The younger of the pair, Georgi Burker, reassures us: “You’ve got sneakers and stretchy pants. That’s all you need.”

PICKLEBALL IS A hybrid game that draws aspects from badminton, tennis and ping-pong. It’s one of the fastest growing sports in America with over 2.8 million players worldwide, according to the USA Pickleball Association website. While about half of players are 50 or older, more and more people of all ages are discovering pickleball as a fun way to get active and get involved in a community. With more than 50 USAPA-confirmed places to play pickleball in Indiana alone, you can probably pick up a paddle in your hometown.

Before we continue our story, we should be honest with you — we’re not sporty. In fact, Kaleigh has never played an organized sport in her life, and Maia hasn’t played a sport in years. That’s probably why we showed up to the Brown County YMCA that morning wearing jeggings, fashion sneakers and and full makeup. Our new instructors, Chris Stoll and Georgi, walk us over to the empty court before we have a chance to say no.

Chris and Georgi are more than just pickleball partners, they’re also cousins. Chris picked up pickleball three years ago and brought Georgi to her first session at the YMCA last year. Early morning games have since become part of both their daily routines. Georgi drives from her home in Spearsville to the 5:30 a.m. YMCA pickleball session almost every weekday, then continues on to work in Columbus afterward. “After a couple hours of this, you’re ready to go. The endorphins are going,” she says. That energy spill over into the workplace, she adds. “It just makes everybody happy.”

Since our 7 a.m. visit is positively late compared to Chris and Georgi’s usual schedule, they throw quick instructions at us as we walk onto the court. Underhand serves only. Let the ball bounce on the return. Don’t step into the “kitchen.” We nod, faking understanding, but we hope that just starting to play will help it all make sense.

Maia’s up first, and it’s a swing and a miss, quickly followed by encouragement from Chris and Georgi to try again. This time, the ball floats toward the correct half of the court, catty corner from Maia, but doesn’t make it far enough and lands in the other kitchen.

The kitchen is an area defined by lines 7 feet on either side of the net. It’s the no man’s land of the game. You can’t step inside the kitchen unless the ball hits the ground there first. This means you can’t crowd the net, and neither can your opponent. The most advanced players push the game right to the edge of the kitchen, because they know that the hardest balls to return are those that just barely coast over the net.

But that comes later, with more practice. Right now, Kaleigh's biggest challenge is filling the apparently invisible hole in the middle of her paddle. As she continues to miss every shot, Georgi reassures her, saying it took her months to be consistently accurate with her paddle. In our second game, Kaleigh and Georgi are pickled, meaning they lost without scoring a single point.

You might be wondering where the “pickle” part of the game’s name originated. According to the USAPA, it’s not about those briny, sour slices that come with your burger, it’s about a dog. In the summer of 1965, three dads in Bainbridge, Washington, were struggling to entertain their kids. Their only materials at hand were pingpong paddles, a badminton net and a wiffle ball. Drawing on the rules of badminton, the three created a game that was not only fun for the whole family but easy to pick up. Even the family cocker spaniel, Pickles, wanted to play, always running off with the ball. So pickleball seemed an apt name for their new game.

In 1972, an association was formed to regulate the adolescent sport, which saw its first competition in Washington in 1976. Drew Wathey, the director of media relations for the USAPA, describes the meteoric rise of pickleball across the country. More than 2.8 million pickleballers now play in the United States alone, and Drew says he expects to see that number keep growing because it’s a social sport you can play for your whole life. Though the demographic is older right now, as pickleball becomes part of gym classes across the nation, he expects more young people to catch on.

IN FACT, IF it hadn’t been for gym class, Sharon Guingrich might not have tried her hand at the game at all. Sharon is now a certified pickleball instructor, proudly displaying her silver pickleball paddle necklace at all times. When her son was in junior high and studying for a test over pickleball rules, the game confused her. “I asked him, ‘Did your coaches make that game up to keep you guys occupied?’” Sharon says. “And he said, ‘No, Mom, it’s a real game.’”

She might have laughed it off then, but now Sharon plays wherever she can, in Carmel, Indianapolis, Plainfield or at home in Bloomington, where we met her at a multipurpose recreational space called the Warehouse.

The Warehouse has become the unofficial hub for the best players in the Monroe County area. Once you get through the seemingly endless swarms of kids jumping on trampolines, whizzing through the skate park or playing field hockey, you’ll find a crew of dedicated pickleball players tucked in the back. They push the game out of its humble backyard beginnings and into competitions or just friendly doubles matches on a Monday evening.

Sharon knows everything about everyone’s game. As she tells us about her recent certification as a pickleball instructor, she gets distracted by what’s happening in the game in front of us. She winces as one player keeps hitting the ball right to an opponent instead of hitting where the court is open. She clenches her fists when the ball just barely coasts over the net.

“Looking at the court right now, if you put Dann and Nick on the same team, they would just clean the clock of the other two,” she says.

“Did I mention everything she says is false?” Dann Denny jokes, running up to us as he hears his name.

Sharon explains to us that pickleball players’ skill levels are ranked based on USAPA guidelines, and the Warehouse players all weigh in at about 4.0 on the 5-point scale. Players self-assess the moves they have mastered, the accuracy of their shots and the consistency of their game to find their ranking. According to the USAPA ranking guidelines, while a 3.0 player is just beginning to use trick shots and doesn't quite know when to use them, a 4.0 player can strategically use different shots to change the pace of the game. Nick Scarpino, who weighs in at a 4.0, is the youngest of the bunch at 27 and he’s by far the fastest, Sharon tells us.

Nick started playing only about a year ago, but attributes his rapid success to years of playing tennis as well as his age. Gary Knutson, who organizes the Warehouse group and plays there himself, says finesse is more important than youth and brute strength, although the younger you are, the faster you can be. Playing pickleball borders the limit of human reaction time, Gary says, and most of the time you really don’t even know how you’re hitting the ball. “It doesn’t get to your forebrain to say, OK, this is what’s happening,” he says. “It’s just like putting your finger on a hot stove.”

You might not feel as if your instincts are on your side at first, even if you’ve played years of tennis. You might swing as if the paddle is longer than it actually is or think the ball should spring higher. Or, if you’re like us, you might feel your instincts are always lagging a few seconds behind. But it all comes together with more practice. The welcoming atmosphere of every court we stepped onto made us feel comfortable enough to laugh at our mistakes, and our mentors encouraged us to come back anytime. We might stick to writing for now, but if we ever hear that familiar ka-TINK ka-TINK rhythm, we’ll dust off our paddles and put on our stretchy pants.

PICKLEBALL PROFILES

Dann Denny, 66, retired journalist

Rating: 3.5

Journey to pickleball: Dann heard the infamous “plinky plinky” while he was playing tennis at The Villages, a retiree resort in Florida with an emphasis on keeping seniors active. After winning the Bloomington city tennis tournament eight times, he easily made the transition to pickleball. He still splits his time between the two sports.

Special moves: A hard forehand and a lob, where he aims to hit the ball as high over his opponent’s head as if there were another person standing on his or her shoulders. He says his lob shot has a success rate of about 80 percent.

Favorite thing about playing: “At my age, it’s just the fun. We make friends, we go out to dinner.”

Our take: Unlike most advanced players, Dann never drills or practices his moves, preferring to spend all his time playing the game. He doesn’t play in tournaments because he prefers to spend weekends square dancing with his wife, but once she retires, he might become more competitive.

Nick Scarpino, 27, pharmacist

Rating: 4.0

Journey to pickleball: About a year ago, Nick was between jobs when he heard about pickleball being played at a recreation center in Westfield, where he was living. He immediately took to the game because of its similarity to tennis, which he played competitively in high school and recreationally in college. He now plays locally and in tournaments around the state.

Special move: An unusual two-handed backhand. Almost everyone does a one-handed backhand in pickleball, so Nick’s leftover skills from tennis throw off his opponents.

Favorite thing about playing: “I can hit shots in pickleball that I can only dream about in tennis.”

Our take: The youngest in the group at the Warehouse, Nick’s speed and agility set him apart. His intensity isn’t diminished by the fact that he usually plays right before his night shift at the hospital.

Sharon Guingrich, 47, bed and breakfast owner

Rating: 4.0, but some days she plays like a 4.5

Journey to pickleball: Sharon was inspired to start playing when she heard about classes at the Brown County YMCA. Now she is an International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association-certified instructor and plays in tournaments around the area. She medaled in two officially sanctioned tournaments this year.

Special move: Her backhand slice shoots the ball at an angle that’s challenging to return because the backspin makes the ball land dead on the ground.

Favorite thing about playing: “I’m not a fantastic player, but I really love the strategy.”

Our take: She can see the game in her head, as though from a bird’s-eye view. She has no trouble applying this to actual game play, both to hers and her competitors.

THE RULES OF THE GAME

Basics: Play the game as doubles or singles.

Serve: Hit the ball underhand to the person diagonal to you on the court. You must keep at least one foot behind the baseline during the serve.

Return: Let the ball bounce before you return the serve, and let that return bounce as well before hitting it. After that, you can hit the ball in the air.

Sequence: The first player serves until he or she loses the point. Then, the serve goes to the opposing side. After that, you serve until you fault, and then your partner serves until he or she faults. Then, the serve switches to the other side.

Score: Before each serve, call out your score, then your opponents’ score, then your serving order (one or two) in that round. You can only score if your team is serving.

WHY YOU SHOULD PLAY

You want to fill time. Maybe you’re newly retired or an empty-nester or you’re just looking for a new hobby. Pickleball gets you out of the house and offline.

You want to find a community. Anyone can play, and the experienced players are happy to teach you what you need to know. You might even find yourself going for coffee after a game.

You want to get more active. With flexible times and places to play and no need for expensive equipment or a gym membership, pickleball is a fun alternative to more traditional exercise.

THE RIGHT PADDLE FOR YOU

Paddles range in price from less than $15 to over $100. You can find them at sporting goods stores or order them online. Experts offer these tips on weight:

Light – If you like to have as much control over your shots as possible, you tend to stay close to the net and you don’t mind sacrificing some power for more speed.

Medium – If you’re a beginner and want the best of both worlds or aren’t sure what you want.

Heavy – If you’re a power player who spends most of the time at the baseline and wants to slam the ball as hard as possible.