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Pickleball growing in popularity in Clay

Maria Carter
Posted 1/13/16

FLEMING ISLAND – Nets stretched across the Barco-Newton YMCA gym. Fletcher Turner, 70, grabbed his paddle and headed to the blue-lined court with his partner. He stepped behind the baseline, …

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Pickleball growing in popularity in Clay


FLEMING ISLAND – Nets stretched across the Barco-Newton YMCA gym. Fletcher Turner, 70, grabbed his paddle and headed to the blue-lined court with his partner. He stepped behind the baseline, stretched his paddle out behind him with one hand and held out a plastic, whiffle-type ball with the other. He dropped the ball and swung, sailing it diagonally across the net into his opponent’s service box.

And after a few more serves and volleys, Turner and his partner won their game of pickleball.

“Well my wife is the athlete,” he joked on the sideline, “but I’ve been playing over a year now. It’s high energy, but it’s low impact and there’s no age limit.”

Pickleball has been described as one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S., with leagues popping up and tournaments being played more all over the country.

“Anyone who plays falls in love with it right away,” said Edith Hardee, 71, another pickleball devotee.

Former Congressman Joel Pritchard and his friend Bill Bell created the game for their families one afternoon in 1965 on the Pritchards’ badminton court. They didn’t have badminton racquets or a birdie, so they made do with pingpong paddles and a plastic, perforated ball.

Now, it is one of the most rapidly-growing sports in the United States with more than 2,000 places to play – double the amount of places just five years ago.

A few of those locations are here in Clay County, including the Barco-Newton YMCA. In the fall of 2014, Sports Director Megan Casson oversaw the sport’s humble beginnings. She said it caught on first with the seniors because it is low-impact but still action-packed and interactive.

“It really exploded down in The Villages. It got popular at the Ponte Vedra YMCA, and then a little later two guys put a net up in the gym here and started playing. Ever since then it’s caught on, now we have as many as three courts set up during the week,” she said.

Barbara Martin, Barco-Newton member experience maker, helped get the program started. She said she’s seen an awesome response from members and the Clay area in general.

“It’s a really welcoming and friendly environment, people want to learn how to play and everyone wants to help you learn,” Martin said.

The overwhelming spike in popularity has Clay County Parks & Recreation Manager Jeff Boyer trying to add to the five parks that already have pickleball courts.

“All future renovations and repainting projects for tennis courts will include pickleball lines,” he said.

So how is it played? It is a cross between tennis with a half-size court and badminton with a low net, played with pingpong paddles. Players can only win points on their serve, and play to eleven. It involves a lot of strategy, especially in doubles, trying to cover the entire court with a partner. Most of the game is played close to the net and in the air.

“It’s invigorating and exciting to play with other people,” said Edith Hardee.

As for the name, there are a few theories on the USA Pickleball Association website. According to Joel Pritchard’s wife Joan, she started calling the game pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.” 

In the game’s beginnings, it didn’t have an official name. A year or two after the game was invented, the Pritchards got a cocker spaniel and named it Pickles. As the game progressed, an official name was needed and “pickleball” was it, presumably because Pickles the dog would run off with the ball when they were playing in the backyard.

The Barco-Newton Y offers a clinic for beginners on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. The courts are set up on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and Fridays from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. The YMCA provides all the equipment and guest passes for people who want to learn how to play.

And Fletcher Turner can attest the sport offers more than just exercise. “It’s a great community. People form friendships from it,” he said.