The next hot sport is sweeping the nation, though you’re more likely to find it in retirement communities than at your local fitness center.
Dick Gellis and George Rice are trying to change that.
Gellis is the pickleball coordinator for the Longfellow Club in Wayland, a tennis club that started offering sessions of the relatively unknown racket-and-ball game for its members in January 2011.
Gellis had heard about the game from Rice, who as a Cape Cod-based pickleball “ambassador’’ is one of more than 600 representatives of the sport across the United States and Canada. Rice was introduced to the game in Florida, where he said it has become very popular among retired seniors.
All this raises several questions, including: What is pickleball? And, why haven’t you heard of it?
According to the website of the USA Pickleball Association, which officially took over the sport in 2005, pickleball is played on a badminton-size court with the net lowered to 34 inches at the center. It is played with a perforated plastic baseball (similar to a Wiffle ball) and wooden or composite paddles that resemble large table tennis paddles. The game was invented by a man in Washington state in 1965, and named after his dog Pickles.
At the Longfellow Club, it is played on modified tennis courts at least three times a week. Gellis said the club usually gets a strong showing of seniors and former tennis players for games with two-person teams, like doubles tennis. He said the club began offering the sport to promote “active aging.”
“Just because you’re 70 years old doesn’t mean you’re not active,” he said. “I’m a senior myself, so it just makes me feel so good to inspire other seniors to stay active.”
After hearing about pickleball from Gellis and other Longfellow Club members, Natick tennis player Ann Gottlieb finally gave the game a shot.
“I got hooked immediately,” she said. “It’s just so much fun.”
Gottlieb describes the sport as a cross between ping pong and tennis, though it’s scored like badminton. She said it doesn’t have the stress level of tennis, making it great for “all kinds of people, in terms of ability,” even those with physical ailments or injuries, or those inexperienced with ball sports.
“We’re all new players, since it just came here,” she said. “But a lot of us have gotten to be really good about it, and it’s fun to teach others how to play.”
And since pickleball tends to move faster than tennis, Gottlieb said, it is great aerobic exercise, too. Now, she said, it’s just a matter of getting her husband to play.
“He’s a workaholic but I’ll get him one day,” she said.
To market the sport and reach a wider audience, Gellis and Rice are in constant communication.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’ll help people play pickleball anywhere,” said Rice, who fell into his ambassador position by accident. After independently promoting the game in his Barnstable neighborhood, Rice said, he decided he should join the national organization, and marked the box that asked whether he would be willing to help spread the word.
“They called me up and now I’m an ambassador for pickleball for Massachusetts,” he said. “It’s a very friendly sport. People love to just get the chance to spend time together.”
And while retired folks may have more time to play pickleball, Rice and Gellis said, age is not a factor in one’s ability to play the game.
“You can play it when you’re 8 years old, and you can play it when you’re 88 years old,” Rice said, adding that some high schools, including North Attleborough, have started introducing pickleball as an indoor winter sport. He does acknowledge the narrow fan base, though.
“Teenagers may not think it’s an ‘in’ thing, but the retirement community is all over it,” he said.
The sport has become so popular that the Longfellow Club has started offering sessions at its facility in Natick, and in June hosted the pickleball competition for the Massachusetts Senior Games, drawing more than 40 competitors, including 20 players from Rice’s Cape Cod region.
Competitors played in teams by age bracket, and those who won medals are eligible to compete in the National Senior Games next summer in Cleveland.
For Rice, pickleball is more about the fun.
“I have arthritis issues, so I’m not ready to take on that level of competition,” said Rice, whose team took the gold medal in the 75-to-80 age group at the state’s Senior Games. He did point out that it was the only team in the age bracket, so simply playing was grounds for first prize.
Gellis said he constantly gets input from Longfellow members to ensure the club offers a schedule that maximizes opportunities to play.
“To me it’s the best deal in town,” Gellis said. “It’s $5 an hour to play, and we supply the paddles, balls, and instruction. We just want to get people.”
And at the rate it’s been growing, one can imagine pickleball reaching the “real” Olympics in no time.