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Retirees tickled with pickleball

The hybrid of tennis and pingpong is perfect for older athletes looking for exercise without excess exertion.

Published May 24, 2004

[Times photos: Skip O'Rourke]
Sandi Hutcheson, left, and Paul Butler team up on the Sun City Center pickleball courts in March. The game has exploded in popularity among retirees.

Pickleball has its own ball and rackets. Rackets come in metal composite and wood for $10 to $50.

TAMPA - Just to say the word, Linda Reedy's lipstick turned to a frown.

"Sports," she said, shaking coiffed hair. "Too masculine for a girly girl."

In her childhood, girls played with dolls, not balls. The only class she ever failed was golf. She considered arranging flowers as enough exercise for a woman.

But everything changed last year when Reedy, 60, moved to Florida and discovered a game that is winning over Sun Belt retirees in droves, particularly women who never before played sports.

The name alone would tickle any girl's fancy.

"I played pickleball one time, and I couldn't believe it. I loved it. Don't ask me why," said Reedy, with a guilty smile. "I'm still not sure why."

Thousands across the nation - and as far away as Singapore - know her addiction to the racket game that crosses pingpong with tennis.

Simple, lobbing strokes propel the game, played on a shrunken court with a low-hanging net. The serve is underhand. The ball must bounce once on each side after the serve. After that, the last team to return a shot fairly wins the point.

Pickleball began one summer afternoon in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, outside Seattle. Former U.S. Rep. Joel Pritchard devised a lawn game to amuse his children. It involved a plastic ball,a pingpong paddle and a weedy badminton court.

Enter Pickles, the family's black dog. Pickles happened to wander onto the court as a handful of players argued over names for the game.

"Dogs like to chase balls, and the dog was in sight," said Barney McCallum, 77, who was there. "This was not a planned venture in any way, stretch or form."

Today, he is a part-owner in Pickle-ball Inc., which sells 15,000 rackets annually.

McCallum visited Florida last year for a national pickleball tournament at the Villages, a retirement community near Orlando with 44 pickleball courts. Almost 600 players competed.

Senior centers from Ocala to Miami have requested lessons from tournament organizer George Brewer, who also sells paddles. Recently, he and his wife drove their gold Lincoln Town Car with a "Pickleball Paddle Peddler" front license plate to Sun City Center.

The Brewers offered tips to pickleball players at the Hillsborough County retirement community, which discovered the sport two years ago. The Brewers demonstrated how pickleball can provide solid exercise without undue exertion.

"It's not the person who hits the ball hardest," said George Brewer, swinging a paddle with a distinctive plunk. "It's the person who hits the ball over the net last."

From the sidelines, Sun City Center resident Marianne Bushbaum took notes. The 80-year-old wandered onto the pickleball courts after two artificial knees slowed down her tennis game.

"I saw that racket and that funny ball," she said. Bemused by the oddity, she decided to try one set - and paddled away for two straight hours.

"I could hardly walk the next day," she said. "Everybody should know more about pickleball."

Florida is among several states playing pickleball at annual games for seniors. But pickleball remains far from the big leagues.

"It's microscopic. It's minuscule. It's at the subatomic level," said Harvey Lauer, president of American Sports Data Inc. Pickleball is not among the more than 100 national sports and activities that the New York company monitors.

Fans see pickleball going big, or at least bigger. After all, no one expected pickleball to last the course of an afternoon. After that first summer, pickleball found a home on Seattle's streets, where the original players fine-tuned the rules.

Interest grew around Seattle, then nationally. McCallum and his son created a simple marketing strategy from the newly minted Pickle-ball Inc.: Pitch pickleball to physical education teachers.

The timing could not have been better. A federal education law, known as Title IX, had just required schools to provide equal athletic opportunities to women. Coaches flocked to see pickleball, which McCallum and his son advertised as a sport where girls could compete with boys.

The sport proved popular in states with cold winters, where students could play pickleball indoors. Over time, pockets of pickleball players surfaced along the East Coast.

Locally, a handful play weekly at the East Pasco Adventist Academy, a private school in Dade City.

The group started when Reynaldo Gonzalez of Spring Hill discovered pickleball while traveling out west. He told a friend, who got more friends to play.

"Once they start playing, believe me, it's nonstop," said Gonzalez, 67, who recently competed in a tournament for seniors in Arizona.

Halfway around the world, pickleball also thrives in Singapore. A businessman there picked up the game during his U.S. travels.

"People are so gung ho," said McCallum, who makes envelopes for a living. "I tell people this as kind of a joke, "If people liked my envelopes as well as they like the pickleball, I'd own Seattle.' "

Instead, Seattle's riches belong to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, rumored to play pickleball. None of pickleball's original stockholders has made a dime off the game, McCallum said, refusing to detail finances for fear of competition.

Rackets come in metal composite and wood for $10 to $50. Senior players prefer the metal composite paddles for the power. McCallum would like to push harder into the relatively new senior market. For now, however, pickleball continues to spread one player at a time.

At the Villages, Reedy found pickleball while looking for activities to share with her husband. Her first lesson, an instructor told her to lose the "girly" tennis shoes.

"I did feel awkward. I really did," she said. But that night, she rehearsed pickleball plays in her mind. She could not wait to return to the court.

Now she owns solid athletic shoes and a graphite paddle, the kind competitive pickleball players use.

With glitter-painted nails, Reedy recently rolled up her blouse sleeve to show off a large bruise, where she got carried away swinging her new paddle.

"I'm telling you," she said, "It's like power in my hand."

[Last modified May 24, 2004, 01:00:32]

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