Photo by Mike Sheahan

Pickleball is Life

Paddle sport takes over Eugene-Springfield, giving zip to local courts

It’s a cloudy spring morning at Meadow Park in Springfield as I get ready to serve. I have a pickleball in my left hand and my right hand holds a paddle below my waist. I double-check my form by mentally telling myself, “It’s like throwing a bowling ball.”

First, I call out the score: “1-8-2.” Yes, my partner — Roger Schaljo, president of the Emerald Valley Pickleball Club (EVPC) — and I are losing by that much because, despite my eagerness to learn the game, I’m a slow learner in sports. So much for beginner’s luck.

Next, I hit the ball, which makes a ping-pong-like sound, and it soars over the net into play.

The rally begins — and so does the fun. After ruining countless exchanges by hitting the ball too hard and forcing it out of bounds, Schaljo and I finally get an almost minute-long rally with our opponents.

Pickleball has nothing to do with pickles.

Created in 1965 by Joel Pritchard, who was a congressman and lieutenant governor of the state of Washington, the name has two possible origins. The first origin comes from Pritchard’s wife, who was reminded of a pickle boat crew in boating, a term for leftovers from other boats.

The other — and the one that USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) Executive Director Justin Maloof and the whole organization claim is the official origin — is that it’s named after a dog the Pritchard family had that would chase the ball.

The ball looks like a wiffle ball, except it has holes all around the ball. The paddle looks as if a Ping-Pong paddle and a tennis racket had a baby. And when the two collide in a full-on rally, it gives off a pitter-patter sound that reminds me of Maggie Simpson’s (of The Simpsons) cartoon pacifier sucking.

 

Gettin’ Pickled

Pickleball is a paddle sport created for all ages. The game, which can be played in singles or doubles, starts out with a serve through underhand (unlike tennis) and that must be made diagonally crosscourt. When the opponent returns the serve, the serving side must let the ball bounce before returning the volley.

Then the players run up closer to the net for a volley, but they have to make sure to stay out of the game’s trademarked region called “The Kitchen,” a zone of seven feet. Points are scored by the serving team, and the game is played up to 11, though wins must have a margin of two points.

Just like in real life, it’s hard to stay out of the kitchen. But the game is designed so beginners can learn and then quickly develop into experienced players, leading to competitive play. 

And that’s what I hear at Meadow Park. Players tell me the game is easy to pick up, but it also has skills and techniques that develop over time, encouraging continuous practice.

Maybe those are the reasons why the sport is gaining popularity nationwide — engaging 2.8 million players across the country, with the most activity on the West Coast, according to a report by Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

This is part of what’s made pickleball transition from a game into a sport, Maloof says.

For Maloof, the proof this transition has happened is that the equipment is becoming available in big box stores. Before Dick’s, Target or Walmart began to sell pickleball equipment, he says, players had to buy through a website or from vendors at a pickleball tournament.

Yes, there are pickleball tournaments, and one seems to take place nearly every weekend during summer in Oregon. Maloof tells me that the first national championship tournament was played in 2009. Since then, the championship made a big move from Casa Grande, Arizona, to Indian Wells, California.

Famous for hosting the Indian Wells Masters tennis tournament, Indian Wells will also host the national pickleball championship for the next five years, with a possibility of another five-year extension.

“It’s going to elevate the status of the USAPA beyond what we’ve had in the past,” Maloof says.

With pickleball’s increasing popularity, more people are visiting the USAPA’s website to find a court. This has led to the association’s developing another website just for finding a court, Maloof says. That’s because traffic has increased, and the system’s database contains more than 6,000 courts — whether they’re pickleball-specific courts or tennis courts with pickleball lines drawn on.

Setting up for pickleball is easy and takes 15 to 30 minutes. It’s an economical use of space. Dimensions are 20 feet by 44 feet, allowing four pickleball courts to fit on one tennis court. More pickleball courts are being constructed and tennis courts are having their lines redrawn to welcome pickleball players, which is making the sport more accessible for players, Maloff adds.

Schaljo says pickleball is especially popular in retirement centers, where many retirees will look elsewhere if there aren’t pickleball courts. As a result, it’s possible to find retirement centers like The Villages in Florida, which has more than 100 pickleball courts for its residents.

Pickleball could be seeing itself branch out in more international locations, as well. Because the sport has similar skillsets to tennis and table tennis, it’s easy to market abroad. For example, Maloof says he held a clinic in China, where badminton and table tennis have a long tradition. Chinese athletes caught on and had some of the longest rallies he ever saw beginners have.

 

[aesop_image img=”https://www.eugeneweekly.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/20180705coverstory-2.jpg” panorama=”off” imgwidth=”100%” credit=”Photo by Mike Sheahan” align=”center” lightbox=”on” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Holding Sport in a New Court

Pickleball in Eugene-Springfield has come a long way from its beginnings at Berean Baptist Church in Eugene. The sport moved indoors to recreation centers like Eugene Swim and Tennis Club, the YMCA and the then-named Willamalane Center for Recreation and Sports (now the Bob Keefer Center, no relation to EW’s arts editor).

One of the biggest outdoor moves happened when Willamalane Park and Recreation District completed its first outdoor public pickleball courts in Springfield at Meadow Park.

The court renovations at Meadow Park weren’t cheap and almost didn’t happen.

The district had about $70,000 set aside for tennis court improvements, but there wasn’t enough left over for Meadow Park after the district renovated two other courts at Willamalane Park and Guy Lee. Neither of them have lines drawn on for pickleball, says Kristina Koenig, a landscape architect with the district.

With only $20,000 left for court renovations, Meadow Park would be worked on another day, but Schaljo told Koenig and the district that he and his club could raise the money needed. Koenig says she had doubts they could raise the money, but six months later EVPC had more than half of the money needed to renovate the courts. They came back to Willamalane with $19,000 to pitch in for the court renovation.

Because of the club’s contribution, the courts became a reality, Koenig says.

Schaljo says renovating tennis courts to Pickleball courts is a nationwide trend.

“You’re seeing it all over the country,” Schaljo says. “There are courts in bad shape and, with not a lot of money, they are being redone.”

Meadow Park was the first park that he and the association lobbied for renovating for pickleball, he adds. For him, it was an opportunity to show Willamalane they were serious about the sport and that there is a growing membership.

Since the courts have been renovated, the club has taken ownership of them. Before I played my first game at Meadow Park, someone from the club used a leaf blower to rid the surface of debris.

“I get emails from them saying, ‘Hey there’s a broken sprinkler here,’” she adds. “They’re keeping extra eyes on the park.”

Of course, the district still does major maintenance like powerwashing the courts twice a year. And every five years the district will need to undergo crack repair, the price of which varies.

The renovations of the pickleball courts at Meadow Park followed other improvements, which included a new playground, landscaping, paved plaza, benches and restroom renovations. The improvements made the park an attractive location for the pickleball club, Koenig says.

With outdoor courts constructed, Schaljo was quoted in a press release from Willamalane as saying that pickleball would surge in popularity. He referenced the game’s upward trend in Bend, where the growth of members increased from 90 to 650 after outdoor courts were constructed.

This popularity is evident at EVPC, too. Last year the club had 142 members, and now it’s grown to nearly 300 members. It’s beginning to catch up to the Corvallis and Bend clubs, Schaljo adds.

Bob Keefer, former superintendent of Willamalane, tells me that before the Meadow Park courts were installed, EVPC approached the district about using the space in the center that’s now named for him. It was perfect timing, since the district was looking for ways to maximize use of the center during the day, he says.

Once EVPC began playing inside the center, Keefer started playing habitually after Schaljo taught him and other Willamalane staff. Keefer says he still plays to this day in Sisters — where he also serves as a board member of the city’s parks department.

I see why the sport is so addictive after playing for nearly two hours with EVPC president Schaljo. And it’s no surprise the sport could have a court in Eugene.

Pamela Symond with Eugene’s Parks and Open Space Planning says a recent survey conducted by the agency shows interest in the game has increased and that residents are requesting courts.

The popularity — and Schaljo’s persistence — has revived the lives of failing tennis courts in the area.

The single court at Sladden Park was resurfaced and restriped for both tennis and pickleball. The courts at Westmoreland Park were renovated and resurfaced to feature two tennis courts and eight pickleball courts, Symond says.

Renovating the courts at both parks cost $30,000 and — just as with Willamalane — EVPC pitched in some money, this time contributing $5,000.

The renovation at Westmoreland Park has had a hiccup in development, however. Symond says that, although the contractor has had a lot of experience in developing courts, the ever-changing weather in Eugene caused trouble.

“Right when they were finishing the sealant, we had cold rain,” she says. “The bubbles were so large that when they popped, this big amount of sealing was sloughing off.”

As a result, city officials worried the courts might cause user injuries. The contractor has agreed to fix the court at no cost to the city, though. Symond adds the contractor is currently waiting for the right conditions.

 

Pickleball Breathes Life into Its Players

The game has renovated more than just local courts. For many players who have played the game, it’s been a way to keep active while being low impact, Schaljo says.

Don’t let the low-impact nature of the game give you the impression that it’s a low-activity game. Schaljo says the game keeps one’s heart rate high over a long duration.

The non-stop action of pickleball is what converted Buzz Summers, former tennis coach at the University of Oregon.

Summers, 83, says pickleball replaced tennis in his life a few years ago. He adds that tennis wore out his shoulder from too many shots. Part of what got him hooked on pickleball was that it was easier than other activities on his aching joint.

In fact, Schaljo says he remembers when Summers had to get surgery on his right shoulder. But he showed up to the courts a few days later, ready to play as a southpaw.

Injury hasn’t stopped Schaljo from playing, either. He says when he had a knee replacement, he went on to play and organize a tournament — after getting written approval from his doctor to ease concerns from his wife about his return to the sport.

Summers has gone on to win championships, ranking as the best pickleball player in his age bracket nationally, Schaljo says. Summers brought home the gold from 2015 to 2017 in the 80-and-up age bracket, but he’s also received gold in doubles in the 75-and-over bracket during that time.

What’s also attracted Summers to the sport is that it requires more strategy than tennis. He says you can win by just overpowering someone in tennis. In pickleball, he adds, it takes more finesse and strategy — and it’s also faster.

“You have a lot more hits, a lot more action,” he says. “Tennis has a lot of breaks that slow the action down.”

As I waited with Schaljo for a second match at Meadow Park (which we would end up losing because of my knack for over-hitting and forgetting Schaljo’s advice), I met a couple who have made life decisions based on pickleball.

“We had to drive an hour to get to higher level of play,” Roger Harrison tells me.

So he and his wife Shary decided to move from Southern California to Surprise, Arizona, which they describe as a “hotbed” for pickleball during the winter. And they’ve combined travelling and pickleball, which is why I ran into them at Meadow Park in Springfield. They add that going place to place, they know all of the pickleball players are a family.

“Pickleball was invented as a social game,” Harrison says. “The number one rule is to have fun.”

And that’s the overall atmosphere at Meadow Park. Sure, frustration from competition was evident, as missed shots and scoring opportunities will do to anyone. But, at the end of the game, all players are brought together by the sport whether it’s coming together for a Sunday potluck or traveling in droves to compete at tournaments.

Visit evpbc.com to find upcoming events, information about lessons and how to become a member.