Pickleball is taking the community by storm! Find out why this curious new game is a smash hit with friends and neighbors alike.
A couple of years ago, a friend told Lake Mary resident LeeAnn D’Ercole that he had started playing pickleball. “I thought he was making it up,” LeeAnn says with a laugh. “But he said, ‘No – it’s a real sport!’”
LeeAnn would soon discover for herself that pickleball is not only a real sport, it is a really, really fun sport. So fun, in fact, that LeeAnn now plays pickleball three times a week.
“It’s a new-found passion for me, for sure,” LeeAnn says. “It’s the kind of game that you fall in love with right away.”
For the uninformed, here’s the scoop: Pickleball is a paddle sport that combines elements of tennis, ping-pong, and badminton. It’s played on a court that is one-third the size of a tennis court, indoors or outdoors, with what looks like an over-sized ping-pong paddle and a plastic wiffle ball. It’s easy to learn and great for all ages and skill levels.
Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, particularly at active senior communities like The Villages in Sumter County, and has been recently featured on both the NBC Nightly News and The Early Show on CBS. The Villages, dubbed “The Pickleball Capital of the World,” currently has 176 courts and more than 3,000 active players.
The game was invented in 1965 by three dads on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, to keep their bored kids occupied on a summer day. They used ping-pong paddles and a plastic baseball, and one of their wives called it “pickleball,” because it reminded her of the pickle boat in crew, where rowers were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.
In Seminole County, pickleball courts and groups have been springing up all over. Kim Eltonhead, Senior Center supervisor for the City of Sanford, spearheaded a pickleball movement after Sanford resident Helen Belanger asked her if there were plans to add courts in Sanford. Around that same time, Heathrow Woods resident Vicki Ellsweig, a former tennis player who was looking for some fellow pickleball players, started a group on Meetup.com (Sanford/Lake Mary Pickleball). Helen discovered pickleball about two years ago when a former tennis teammate of hers, Longwood resident Sharon Burtner, invited her and a couple other friends to her beach house at Ponce Inlet for a tennis weekend. A neighbor of Sharon’s had a pickleball court and invited the foursome to give it a try. Suddenly, the tennis weekend became a pickleball weekend.
“We borrowed their paddles and had the best time ever,” says Helen, 70. “We were hooked.”
Kim had seen pickleball played at the Florida State and National Senior Games and decided to learn more by visiting a hugely popular pickleball facility located at Veterans Memorial Park in Winter Garden. When she returned, Kim asked the Sanford Recreation Department’s parks manager if he would mark some tennis courts with tape or chalk for pickleball, only to discover the City had already done so at several parks around Sanford.
Earlier this year, Kim combined her resources with Vicki’s Meetup group and held a pickleball seminar at Groveview Park in Sanford. About 20 people showed up on that February morning, and since then, the group has continued to meet for a fun couple of hours of pickleball on Wednesdays at 8:30 a.m. Kim supplies balls and beginner paddles, so drop-ins are always welcome.
“The majority of our players are 50-and-over right now,” says Kim, “but the courts are open and there’s no fee, so anyone can play. All you need to do is get some paddles and balls and go out and play. It’s an awesome sport. Anybody can play. I’m glad we’re finally doing it.”
Another popular pickleball location is Eastmonte Park in Altamonte Springs. Red Bug Lake Park in Casselberry currently has one pickleball court with plans to add more in the future. An indoor court was set up this past spring at Oviedo’s Gym & Aquatic Facility for Wednesday morning pickleball by the City of Oviedo’s Department of Recreation & Parks. There was no pickleball this summer, because of summer camps, but play will likely resume when school starts this fall.
“It went well for the weeks that we tried it,” says Sean Fitzgerald, recreation manager for the City of Oviedo. “I would like for us to continue it, and if it goes well, we may expand. I spoke to my director about adding outdoor courts, and we don’t have plans for that at the moment, but that could change in the future. It’s a cool sport for all ages.”
Oviedo resident Donna Smith is hoping that happens sooner rather than later. She plays four or five times a week, driving to Eastmonte and Red Bug Lake parks, as well as an indoor facility off John Young Parkway in Orlando.
“I’m hoping Oviedo and Winter Springs will paint some of their courts [with pickleball lines],” Donna says. “It would be nice to have some free, walk-on courts in our area.”
Both Valerie Taylor of Lake Mary and Susan Sperrazza of Longwood travel to Orlando to play pickleball indoors to avoid the heat. Valerie, 68, says she was pestered into playing by one of her golfing buddies, and she’s glad she finally gave it a try.
“I never played tennis, racquetball, ping-pong, or badminton,” Valerie says. “That’s why I thought it would be too hard for me. But it’s not. It’s easy! And it’s addicting, in a good way. It’s just a riot. I had never heard of pickleball before, but it’s becoming a really big sport. And it’s not just for old people.”
Susan, a retired Seminole County teacher and administrator who now works as an adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida, tried tennis 40 years ago but quit shortly after she moved to Florida.
“The heat was too much and I got tennis elbow, and I decided this is not for me,” says Susan, 67. “I play pickleball indoors, with air conditioning. There are a lot of rules in pickleball, which I love. I’m probably better with the rules than I am at playing.”
As for LeeAnn, she loved the game so much, she started a Saturday night group that plays at Groveview Park and has brought her husband, Steve, into the fold. She also plays with a group of women at Sharon Burtner’s personal tennis court on Monday nights. The women, mostly tennis players, call themselves the “Sweet Pickles.”
“We’ve yet to come across anyone who has tried it and didn’t think it was fun,” LeeAnn says. “Instead of playing Bingo or doing arts and crafts, go out and get some exercise! Pickleball is a great cardio workout, and it’s a fun, social thing to do.”
If you’d like to give pickleball a try, here are some local contacts:
Kim Eltonhead, City of Sanford, Kim.Eltonhead@SanfordFl.gov, 407-688-5129
Fran Carrozza, Eastmonte Park, FCarrozza@Altamonte.org, 407-571-8813
T.K. Kelly, Red Bug Lake Park, TKelly@SeminoleCountyFl.gov, 407-665-2190
Sean Fitzgerald, Oviedo Gym & Aquatic Facility, SFitzgerald@CityofOviedo.net, 407-971-5565
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