June 28, 2010

Pickleball combines tennis, badminton, pingpong ... and fun

By Amy Calder acalder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- It's easy to learn, fun, and extremely popular, say those who play pickleball.

click image to enlarge

BACK AT YOU: Kathy Welch returns a shot during a doubles match of pickleball at the Alfond Youth Center in Waterville.

Staff photo by David Leaming

Say what?

Yes, pickleball. You might call it a cross between badminton, pingpong and tennis.

It's played with a net, paddles and a ball with holes in it, similar to a Wiffle ball.

The game, while developed more than 50 years ago, is relatively unknown in Maine, but wildly popular in places like Florida, Arizona and California -- and played by people of all ages, according to Mike Gallagher, an Oakland resident who spends winters in Florida and South Carolina.

Gallagher, 70, is known as a pickleball "ambassador," volunteering to help spread enthusiasm for the game in Kennebec and Somerset counties.

A former director of the Waterville Area Boys & Girls Club who helped merge that club with the YMCA, Gallagher also is a former member of Waterville's Parks & Recreation Board of Directors. He recently helped start a pickleball program for Waterville Parks & Recreation and the Alfond Center.

The games are free and open to the public and are played at 9 a.m. Wednesdays at the Alfond Youth Center and at 6 p.m. Tuesdays at the Pine Ridge tennis courts off West River Road.

People may just show up to play or come and watch, according to Gallagher. He said the game is a good social activity and when played by people of all ages, encourages intergenerational fun.

"We want to encourage people to stop in," he said. "You don't have to be a great athlete. You can learn to play in five or 10 minutes."

Pickleball was invented in 1965 by Bill Bell and Joel Pritchard, two fathers in Washington state whose children kept saying they were bored and wanted something to do. Pritchard, a U.S. congressman, and Bell made wooden paddles and, using a Wiffle ball on a badminton court, improvised the game.

The Pritchards' dog, Pickles, a cocker spaniel, kept grabbing the ball; the children were constantly yelling for the dog to bring the ball back. Thus, the game was named "pickleball."

Gallagher and his wife, Nancy, played pickleball several times a week in Florida and South Carolina, where the game is played both outdoors and indoors. Mike Gallagher said the game is good for health and fitness, because it promotes hand-eye coordination, stretching, bending and endurance.

Ken Walsh, chief executive officer of the Alfond Center, accepted Mike Gallagher's offer to start a program here. He said it complements existing center activities such as Zumba, yoga, tai chi and water aerobics.

"This goes hand-in-hand with what we're trying to provide for active, older adults," Walsh said. "All ages can play pickleball. It's a great, great game."

Gallagher is borrowing pickleball equipment from Waterville Senior High School. The national USA Pickleball Association offers grants for equipment and has awarded the local program a $250 grant for nets, according to Gallagher.

Pickleball players use paddles about twice the size of pingpong paddles, on a badminton-sized court, and with a lower net.

"We have a couple of folks in their late 70s and some in their late 60s, early 70s," Mike Gallagher said. "Both Nancy and I are 70, so it's not really hard for someone our age. We saw a guy in Florida with an artificial leg play and he did fine."

Walsh said pickleball is in no way a replacement for tennis.

"I don't want people thinking this is a rival of tennis," he said. "You can play both sports, but as you get a little bit older, it might be a little easier to play pickleball."

Amy Calder -- 861-9247

acalder@centralmaine.com

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