'Everyone has a blast' playing pickleball

Late this spring, Denton Hird was cleaning out the gym of the Boys & Girls Club of Danville when he came upon some composite paddles, perforated plastic balls and a net.

The equipment immediately took him back to his grade school days when he and his classmates played pickleball in physical education.

Hird, the club's unit director, dusted off the equipment and started playing pickleball with club members and staff. He hasn't put down his paddle since.

Now he and his friend, Blake Wasson, are planning to host a pickleball clinic in Danville to introduce the sport to a wider audience.

"I have yet to put a paddle in someone's hands and have them say 'it's just OK.' Everyone has a blast," Hird said. "And the awesome thing about pickleball is that anyone of any age and ability level can play it."

Pickleball is sometimes thought of as an activity for senior citizens, said Ruth Rosenquist, a spokeswoman for the Arizona-based USA Pickleball Association. While many seniors are able to enjoy it because it requires less mobility than tennis, "it's gaining such traction because it's age- and gender-neutral."

"There are aspects of the game that levels the playing field," said Rosenquist, who is in her 50s and plays men in their 20s. "We are very competitive with each other. There aren't too many games out there where you can play head to head like that. And once you start playing, it's very addictive."

The pickleball clinic will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Nov. 2 in the Danville Family YMCA gymnasium, 1111 N. Vermilion St. It's free and open to people of all ages from Vermilion and Champaign counties and beyond.

The clinic will be taught by Deli Stinnett, of Terre Haute, Ind., who is currently ranked fourth in the nation in men's and mixed doubles and ninth in men's singles.

Stinnett will teach participants the fundamentals and basic strategies. Then participants can play each other during the last hour.

According to the USA Pickleball Association, pickleball was invented in the 1960s by Joel Pritchard, a Washington state congressman, and his friend, Bill Bell, a businessman.

"They came home after a game of golf and found their kids bored," Rosenquist said. "They invented this game that the entire family could play together, and it's become this huge phenomenon."

The association said pickleball, which now has 131,000 people playing on a regular basis, is the fastest-growing sport in North America. Rosenquist said her organization documented 1,666 venues in January and 1,900 at the end of July.

"We are gaining 39 or 40 venues every month. That doesn't include the YMCA programs, the school programs, the backyard courts. It's really more pervasive than we know," she said. "I'm getting calls from parks and recreation departments around the country every day. They ask, 'Can we devote a few tennis courts to pickleball?' It's really an easy conversion to make. You can tape off a tennis court and lower the net two inches, and you have a pickleball court. And you can fit three pickeball courts on one tennis court. The space is tight, and that makes it very social."

A few months ago, the Champaign Park District converted a tennis court at Hessel Park into a pickleball court after residents expressed an interest, said Laura Auteberry, the park district's marketing and development director.

"Many of these residents winter in Florida where they were playing sports like pickleball and bocce ball, and they wanted to participate in these programs while they were here," she said.

"It seems to be experiencing moderate use," Auteberry said. She added staff will continue to monitor the use to determine future programming and whether to expand courts throughout the park system.

Hird, Wasson and people they play with would like to see a pickleball court in the Danville area. For now, they play at their local park using a portable net.

"I think if people try it, they will be hooked," said Hird, who said taking it up has literally changed his life. Hird, who plays three to five times a week, said he's shed 45 pounds since he picked it up, and he now leads a more active and healthier lifestyle.

"We really want to see it grow in Vermilion County," Hird said.

Following the clinic, Hird and Wasson would like to hold games at the club and other locations in the Danville area on weekends and possibly once or twice a week.

While registration for the clinic isn't required, organizers are trying to get some sort of a head count. If you're interested in participating or want more information, contact them at dchird@yahoo.com or 260-0891.

What is pickleball?

Pickleball combines elements of badminton, tennis and ping pong. It's played on a badminton-size court with a net that's 34 inches high in the center, 2 inches shorter than a tennis net.

Players serve underhand, and players must let the ball bounce once on each side of the court before they can volley. There is a 7-foot no-volley zone on each side of the net called the kitchen.

"That's to prevent someone from slamming the ball over the net," said Deli Stinnett, of Terre Haute, Ind., who is currently ranked fourth in the nation in men's and mixed doubles and ninth in men's singles.

A player serves until he or she faults. Each side must serve in order to score. The first side to score 11 points and is leading by at least 2 points wins.

"It's kind of like ping pong on steroids," said Stinnett, who also is president of the Greater Terre Haute Pickleball Association that has about 180 active members ranging in age from 13 to 79. "It's not a game of power. It's a game of strategy. The best strategy is to move your opponent around to cause them to make an error that you can take advantage of. That's why I like to call it a game of second chance."

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