If players can get past its comical name, pickleball is a game that "gets your blood flowing" and offers social and physical benefits.
Pickleball is a sort of hybrid between tennis, ping-pong and badminton that was created on a backyard whim near Seattle, Washington, in the mid-1960s. The game gained a regional foothold on the West Coast, and in recent years began to explode as a national sport with its own governing body, the USA Pickleball Association, that sanctions tournaments and player ratings throughout the country.
According to the USAPA website, usapa.org, the game is named after the originator's dog, Pickles, who would chase down and steal the ball every time it got smacked off the court.
The Brigantine Community Recreation and Education Department has offered pickleball for about four years. It is free to play, no court reservations are required, and games are structured in a friendly pickup format on weekdays. Pickleball is played on courts set up in the gym at the Brigantine Community Center on 42nd Street 7:30-9 p.m. Monday, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and 1-3 p.m. Wednesday.
“Wednesday is an instructional program for beginners who want to learn the game, and a core group of regular players teach it,” said the CER's Ed Stoltzfus. “Tuesday and Thursday evenings are the most popular times to play.”
Pickleball started as and has remained one of the most popular year-round activities CER offers. Stoltzfus said that in the warmer-weather months it provides a pleasant change of pace for the deluge of tourists who visit the island, and is highly popular during the winter as well.
“Its popularity is enormous, and it's been that way from the beginning,” Stoltzfus said. “It's huge, and I mean all-around-the-country huge. If you told me it would end up being this popular after we started it, I would have laughed.”
Three courts are set up in the gym during scheduled pickleball sessions, each temporarily lined using a store-bought kit, and play follows official USAPA rules. Special paddles are used. The net is similar to a tennis net but smaller, and the ball is perforated similar to a Wiffle ball.
Rules are a blend between tennis and badminton, and scoring is similar to volleyball in that only the serving team scores points. The first side – be it singles or doubles – to reach 11 points wins, and a team or individual must win by at least two points, as in ping-pong.
The CER provides paddles and balls for anyone who requires them, although Stoltzfus said that most participants bring their own paddles. All ages are welcome, but the game tends to draw participants age 40 and up.
“It's very informal – you just come in, choose up sides, people take turns playing when all three courts are full,” Stoltzfus said. “There's no league or tournament play or anything like that. It's strictly for fun.”
According to usapa.org, the game has more than 150,000 participants nationwide. There are also several hundred game ambassadors accessible through the website to help people learn the rules and find places to play.
USA Pickleball Association ambassador chairperson Carrie Jermstad says, on the website, that pickleball has been gaining popularity among older adults largely because it is low impact, an excellent way to expand social horizons, and proven to be helpful in improving and maintaining balance, agility and eye-hand coordination.
“It gets my backside out of the chair a couple of nights a week, and it's a fun way to get in a little exercise,” said longtime Brigantine resident Tom Donahue, who teamed with Chaser Gaffney on a recent Tuesday evening. “I just play during the winter because there are other things I'm involved in during the summer.”
Donahue is a former world-class sailor whose two grown children, Ian and Allyson, followed him into that sport and enjoyed similar success.
Pickleball “gets your blood flowing,” he said.
“And because you're competing – and I don't mean to say this is anything super competitive – but because you're keeping score, you're trying a little harder and pushing yourself a little bit more,” Donahue said.
“You're using paddles and it's more of a finesse game like ping-pong, but you're physically moving around on the court as you would be in tennis.”
Gaffney, who was easily the evening's youngest player, is a pickleball novice. Whether or not he goes on to fame and fortune as a pickleball player remains to be seen, but it's safe to say he will always eat well. His wife is “Food Network Star” Season 10 finalist Nicole Gaffney.
For more on this and other activities the Brigantine CER offers, call 609-264-7350, ext. 1, or see Brigantine Beach CER on Facebook.