As the legend goes, after playing golf one day during the summer of 1965, a congressman from Washington, Joel Pritchard, and his friends Barney McCallum and Bill Bell returned home to find their families sitting around listlessly yearning for something to do.
On the property was an old badminton court, so Pritchard and Bell set about finding the equipment to play. Unable to locate the proper equipment, they improvised. They created four wooden paddles and found a perforated plastic ball. The three innovators created rules, based steeply in badminton, but also kept in mind they wanted a game that would be fun for the whole family. While playing their new game the family dog, a cocker spaniel named Pickles, also became enamored with the sport and would snatch the ball and run away with it at every opportunity. After all, it was Pickle’s ball. And thus, pickleball was born.
Now, 47 years later, pickleball has garnered a large following in Nevada County with the Lake Wildwood Pickleball Club and the Grass Valley Pickleball Club combining to have nearly 200 registered members and many more that play without an affiliation.
“It’s a lot easier to learn then tennis,” said Judie Tartaglia, president of the Grass Valley Pickleball Club. “You could show up today and we could give you an introductory lesson for 15 minutes, then you start playing the game. It’s very addictive … There is a lot less running and a lot more strategy and its easy for beginners.”
The Grass Valley Pickleball Club boasts about 40 paid members and sees several drop-ins on its usual play days (Monday, Wednesday and Saturday), Tartaglia said.
Founder and former president of the Lake Wildwood Pickleball Club, Gerry Cosby, said the Lake Wildwood Chapter is 159 members strong and has grown steadily over the past three years.
“One of the reasons pickleball is so popular is the baby boomer thing,” Cosby said. “There are so many aging baby boomers and so many adult communities and for those of us that are older yet active, we can’t play tennis anymore because of joints, and shoulders and knees or what have you, and pickleball is played on a quarter of the size of a tennis court. It’s the same game actively but with less impact on your joints.”
The hybrid sport, which combines elements of tennis and badminton played with wood paddles and a wiffle ball, wasn’t well received by parks and recreation locations at first.
The Grass Valley club was denied in 2011, when it applied to have pickleball stripes added to the courts at DeVere Mautino Community Park in Grass Valley. The Grass Valley Parks and Recreation committee has since changed its decision and pickleball is now played regularly at Devere Mautino Park.
Despite 159 pickleball members in Lake Wildwood, Cosby said she has been at odds with the Lake Wildwood board in her attempts to convert one of the six tennis courts inside the gated community’s gates.
“We feel we should be able to take over one (tennis) court and it’s been a real controversy,” she said. “They have six total courts and we have more members than they do. It’s a political battle and we’re not winning it.
“I’ve been through four board presidents and four budget cycles and nothing. It’s a matter of people being stuck in their ways, it’s a matter of it having a funny name, we keep saying ‘we need to change the name to extreme pickle ball or something.’ But, it is a sanctioned sport, and I believe it will be an Olympic sport in four to eight years.”
Despite the struggles to find locations where club members can regularly play, the game has thrived in Nevada County and has even spawned a pair of medal-winning pickleballers.
Doug Koch, 51, took up the game in June of 2011, when his brother brought some pickleball paddles and balls to a family gathering. Since then, Koch has won a gold medal and two silver medals at the World Senior Games in St. George, Utah. Koch also won a silver medal at the USA Pickleball Association Nationals in Phoenix in November. Koch, teamed up with another local player Matthew Blom, 34, in the Men’s 19+ doubles competition. The two talented pickleballers took down last year’s national champs, but fell in the final.
Blom also won a silver medal in the mixed doubles competition with partner Adina Jones.
Pickleball is on the rise in Nevada County and several places are now available to play. There are a pair of courts at Meadow Park in Lake Wildwood; there are four public courts at DeVere Mautino Community Park in Grass Valley; Gateway Park in Penn Valley has three courts striped for pickleball; Meadow Vista Park in Auburn has four courts and Auburn Recreation Gym has three indoor courts.
The cost is relatively inexpensive with pickleball paddles costing anywhere from $20-$90 and balls are $12 for a dozen.
While the sport may sound silly or even made up, it’s following is not. The sport is played in more than 4,000 middle schools and high schools across the country and is growing at a 30 percent per year clip.
“Tennis is on the wain all over the U.S.,” said Cosby. “Pickleball is on the rise.”
To contact Sports Writer Walter Ford, call (530) 477-4232 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org