Pickleball spears a crowd at Kent Recreation Center

Delaware State News photos by Marc Clery

DOVER — Pickleball sounds as if it might be some kind of hand-rolled deep-fried concoction served up by a vendor at the Delaware State Fair with a side of ranch dressing.

In reality, it’s actually a racket sport with a unique name that has grown immensely in Delaware — and across the United States — in recent years. It’s been said that once people try it they become instantly addicted.

Pickleball is a blend of ping pong, badminton and tennis. The plastic ball used is similar to a whiffle ball and the paddle is a mix between a racquetball racket and ping pong paddle. It’s played on an area much smaller than a tennis court.

“I’ve played a lot of racket sports but none of them caught me like this one,” said Dana Aultman, a 67-year-old pickleball instructor who lives in Camden.

“It’s just easy to learn and way fun to play and there’s really no difference from male to female. Anybody can play,

HISTORY OF PICKLEBALL The game started during the summer of 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Wash. Three men returned from a round of golf and found their families bored. They tried to play badminton but no one could find a shuttlecock. So they improvised with a whiffle ball, lowered the badminton net and fabricated paddles of plywood from a nearby shed, creating a new sport in the process.

PICKLEBALL HISTORY
The game started during the summer of 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Wash. Three men returned from a round of golf and found their families bored. They tried to play badminton but no one could find a shuttlecock. So they improvised with a whiffle ball, lowered the badminton net and fabricated paddles of plywood from a nearby shed, creating a new sport in the process.

young and old.

“They bill it as the fastest-growing sport in America. All the bowlers are getting old and they want to keep playing games and they’re a little too old for tennis, so there’s pickleball. It’s extremely addictive.”

The staff at the recently opened Kent County Recreation Center at 1683 New Burton Road in Dover found that out as pickleball has quickly become one of their most popular offerings.

Brent Mollohan, program supervisor for the Kent County Recreation Center, said the reasons for the sport’s popularity are easy to see. He said it’s affordable, can be played by a wide variety of ages and is just plain fun.

“It’s a game that can be played by all ages,” Mr. Mollohan said. “I think when it first started, the senior population was really attracted to it.

“A lot of people played tennis [when they were younger] and as you get older, tennis becomes faster and faster while you become slower and slower. This game can be a very fast game or it can be a very slow game played all at once.”

The Kent County Recreation Center has three permanently marked pickleball courts with access to three more. The courts are on a rubberized floor that Mr. Mollohan said is good for the players’ joints.

The center will try to squeeze 14 courts inside its walls when it hosts the Senior Olympics Pickeball Tournament Sept. 24-25.

“It’s continually getting bigger and bigger,” Mr. Mollohan said. “It’s new to this area and it’s an affordable and fun sport to play.”

Mr. Mollohan added that 51 people are signed up for the center’s Adult Pickleball Class, which ranges in skill set from advanced players to beginners. Currently, only doubles play is offered.

The class meets on Tuesday and Thursdays and the facility also offers several drop-in pickleball sessions throughout the week as well as a league that meets on Saturdays. Wooden rackets and balls are provided to beginners who might want to try out the sport.

ABOUT THAT NAME ... Many sources say the name actually came from the term “pickle boat”, which refers to the last boat to return with its catch. According to Joan Pritchard, wife of Joel Pritchard, one of the sport’s creators, the name came “after I said it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. Somehow the idea the name came from our dog Pickles was attached to the naming of the game, but Pickles wasn’t on the scene for two more years. The dog was named for the game.”

ABOUT THAT NAME …
Many sources say the name actually came from the term “pickle boat”, which refers to the last boat to return with its catch. According to Joan Pritchard, wife of Joel Pritchard, one of the sport’s creators, the name came “after I said it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. Somehow the idea the name came from our dog Pickles was attached to the naming of the game, but Pickles wasn’t on the scene for two more years. The dog was named for the game.”

“We get a lot of phone calls with people asking, ‘What is pickeball?’,” Mr. Mollohan said. “We try to explain it to them. I say it’s a modified tennis and a glorified ping pong game, played all at once.

“We had some staff who had never played the game before and within 15 minutes they understood the rules and they picked it up and they were great at it.”

The sport is designed to create an even playing field with its small 22- by 40-feet court, making running less important.

In a match, a player serves diagonally to the opposing team. After the ball bounces once, it’s played back. The ball must bounce once more after the return and then it’s open court — except for the non-volley area, which is also known as the kitchen — which is a 7-foot section on each side of the net. A player may only enter there once a ball bounces.

Most players play right outside the kitchen, volleying back and forth, but there is also the chance for a lob with 15 feet of open space remaining behind the kitchen line.

The games go up to 11 points and, like tennis, points are only awarded to the serving team.

“I play pickleball for the exercise,” said Clayton’s Kathryn Urian, 68. “I’ve always played racket games, I played racquetball for years in tournaments when I was at the University of Nebraska. Pickleball is something you can do to stay active. I really enjoy it.”

Mr. Aultman said it doesn’t matter how a person is introduced to pickleball, it usually becomes an obsession.

“I was in upstate New York in the winter of 2010 and we were walking around an indoor track on the second floor of a rec center and we kept hearing this odd-sounding sound so I looked down,” he said.

“I was fascinated. I walked down and said, ‘What is this?’ and they said, ‘It’s Pickleball. It’s great fun. Grab a paddle and get in here’ — and that was the end of that.”

For more information, call Kent County Parks and Recreation at 744-2495.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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