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Pickleball is growing fast 

SemiNative

click to enlarge The majority of pickleball players are above age 55. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • The majority of pickleball players are above age 55.

If you've walked by the old tennis courts in Monument Valley Park on a weekend morning, you've seen them. At first glance, it looks like they're playing tennis. Upon closer inspection, the courts are smaller and what they're playing looks more like ping pong, except they're standing on the table and their rackets are bigger. They're volleying something that looks like a whiffle ball.

You probably noticed, the players are not millennials — if anything they're the grandparents of millennials. What they're playing is called pickleball.

The game was invented on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1965 according to the USA Pickleball Association. (The story goes that it got its name from a cocker spaniel named Pickles who would steal wayward balls.) In 2014 NBC News declared pickleball the fastest-growing sport in the country and it seems the flood of new players to the game hasn't slowed down. The folks at the Pikes Peak Pickleball Association can attest to that. The local association has about 850 members ranging in age from 9 to 89, according to PPPA board president Jeff Norton.

According to the USA Pickleball Association, 13 percent of casual participants (those who play up to seven times a year) and 75 percent of core participants (those who play more than eight times a year) are age 55 and older. Local numbers are similar: As of December 2016, 85 percent of PPPA members were 51 or older.

Norton says it's a great sport for all ages — and while it is a social game, it's also competitive. The barrier to entry is also low: You just need a racket, some balls and a good pair of court shoes. And, he says, it's addictive. "You go to play for an hour and three hours later you go home dripping with sweat."

I recently joined PPPA members for their free lesson — offered at Wasson Academic Campus every Saturday at 11 a.m. (they provide rackets and balls to use during the lesson). Racket sports have always highlighted the intersection of my awkwardness and competitiveness, so I walked onto the courts expecting to be schooled by a septuagenarian.

I was surprised to find that I was older than at least a third of the nearly 30 participants. And instead of getting my butt kicked on the court by a 70-year-old, I was facing a 26-year-old who played tennis in high school. He was there with his father who wants to play the game with his son.

The association offers two free lessons before moving participants onto guided play where one instructor coaches four players — the only catch is that at that point you have to pay the $20 association fee. Much like a drug dealer, they give you the taste for free, assuming you'll come back for more.

Lisa was at the Wasson courts for her second lesson. She told me it took her less than a week to get addicted, her first lesson was the week prior and she had played multiple times in between.

After guided play, the association hosts round robin and ladder play at Monument Valley regularly (their schedule can be found on their official website: pikespeakpickleball.com). Norton says on any weekend morning, it's not unusual to have 60 players on the courts with another 20 waiting to play.

The Monument Valley courts got a makeover in 2016, converting them from tennis courts in disrepair to exclusively pickleball courts (tennis courts can be striped to be dual use). The conversion cost about $600,000. The city contributed $100,000 and Norton said the rest came from benefactors and fundraising by the association. His membership is a motivated one. "As president, if I called for a need to repair a court, I'd have 70 people ready to help."

As players indulge in their addiction, they level up in skill ratings (players are rated between 2.0 and 5.0) and can compete in tournaments. Two tournaments are held locally: the Rocky Mountain State Games and the Great Plains Regional.

I left the courts after my 90-minute lesson realizing the weekend crews in Monument Valley Park make it look a lot easier than it is — and I'm still pretty uncoordinated. Am I addicted? I haven't played again since the lesson, so not quite. But would I play again? Happily.

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