The quick rise of tennis' younger sibling among older athletes

The pickleball phenomenon has descended upon Central Ohio with a distinctive and rather loud ploink! It’s fun, social, easy on achy joints, and more and more players—mostly in the 50-and-over demographic—are flocking to the growing number of pickleball courts that were formerly reserved for tennis.

“Three years ago, I was having coffee with a friend after Jazzercise,” says Westerville resident Anita Cothern, 54. “She said, ‘I have to go play pickleball, come and see it.’”

One look was all it took. Cothern and then her husband, Jeff, 60, were bitten by the pickleball bug. They recently participated in the Senior National Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I’d play every day if I could, and often do,” she says. “It’s one of the most fun games I’ve ever played.”

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Pickleball is a combination of badminton, tennis and pingpong, and it was invented by Washington state residents Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell in 1965. It has experienced double-digit annual growth the past few years, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. There are now almost 3 million regular players, and about 75 percent of the “core” players, who compete eight or more times a year, are 55 and older.

About a dozen years ago, Worthington Parks & Recreation created a pickleball court at its senior center by putting down some tape boundaries, says Ryan Cooper, the center’s recreation supervisor. “We soon outgrew that space.”

Worthington now has dedicated pickleball courts at multiple indoor and outdoor locations. The suburb converted two tennis courts at Olentangy River Parklands into six permanent pickleball courts. “People are camped out there, waiting to play,” Cooper says. “They bring their lawn chairs and snacks.”

The game is especially popular with older athletes because “it’s a lot easier on the body,” says Darcy Baxter of Westerville Parks & Recreation, which built four permanent pickleball courts at Hoff Woods Park. “At any given time, we can only have 16 players on the four courts, and there’s usually a backlog,” Baxter says.

Track and field always drew the most participants to the Ohio Senior Olympics in Westerville, but last year pickleball edged it out, says Katie Foss of the Westerville parks department.

David Seckel and Will Willson, both 25, are among the growing number of younger players. They were a dynamic tennis doubles team at Otterbein University, winning a league title as sophomores. They converted to pickleball after graduation and now play the expanding and often-televised pro circuit. They formed Columbus Pickleball in 2016 and run summer leagues in Bexley and winter leagues at the Olympic Indoor Tennis Club in Clintonville.

“It’s grown so much since we started,” Willson says. “Everyone in the sport is great about recruiting their friends to play.”

Perhaps the sport’s peculiar label piques their curiosity. According to pickleball legend, it was named for Pritchard’s dog, Pickles, who loved to chase errant shots, though Seckel doubts the story’s authenticity. Willson says there’s a debate about changing the name because it’s confusing to outsiders, but finding a new one has proven difficult. “Racquetball, paddleball—all the good names are taken,” he says.

So far that hasn’t seemed to matter much. “The way people seem to be so into it,” Cooper says, “I see it continuing to grow for a long time.”

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