It started in a backyard out west in the ‘60s. A trio of guys worked out the details. Only a few people took notice at first, but eventually word spread.
It took 20 years before a national association was formed. Tournaments began to spring up. Now, almost 60 years since its inauspicious beginning, pickleball has arrived. It has certainly found its place in central Illinois.
“It’s crazy. People used to say it was the fastest-growing sport in the country for people 50 and over. Now it’s the fastest growing sport — period,” said Keith Knox, manager of Parkside Fitness, a health club managed by the Pekin Park District.
Parkside’s website encourages area residents to join “the pickleball craze” with open play offered every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.
“We’ve got 25 to 30 (pickleball) players here on a regular basis. Some are out for fun and camaraderie, others for the competition,” said Knox.
Pickleball is a cross between tennis and ping pong, played on a playing surface smaller than the traditional tennis court with paddles and plastic wiffle balls. The game attracts older players who like the lighter equipment and compact court, said Mike Mitchell, pickleball ambassador for the Peoria Park District.
“The game has exploded,” concurred Mitchell, noting that a recent park district clinic drew 60 people.
“Most of the people who came had never played before,” he said.
“While the majority of people who play are 50-plus, it’s catching on with younger people,” said Mitchell, who runs pickleball clinics and tournaments throughout central Illinois. “If a facility wants to develop a program, I help them.”
Mitchell himself was slow to come to the game. While an administrator at Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Mitchell was aware that guards often would play in the nearby gym.
“I never played myself,” he said. But when Mitchell moved to Peoria in 2012 after retiring from the prison job at age 50, “I thought I’d give the game a try. I got hooked,” he said.
After skirting the spotlight for so long, the game’s popularity has surprised some of those who work in the recreational sector. “If you’d told me a decade ago that this many people would be playing pickleball, I’d say you were dropped on your head as a child,” said Knox, who’s been with the Pekin Park District for more than 20 years.
“Another one of the attractions is that anyone can play. It’s a low investment in terms of equipment and there are tons of places to play in the Tri-County area,” he said.
New pickleball courts have gone up at Glen Oak Park in Peoria in an area that once housed the park’s clay tennis courts, while courts are newly available in Washington, Dunlap, Eureka, Galesburg and Normal, noted Mitchell. In Pekin, outdoor pickleball courts are also available at Mineral Springs Park. Meanwhile, many of the area health clubs like Peoria’s River City now offer them.
In Morton, Dave Beebe, 54, said he started playing pickleball casually five years ago but has become a regular. He’s not the only one in the family to develop a taste for the sport. “My mom and stepdad have won a number of pickleball tournaments together,” he said.
“It’s a very fast-paced game. I’ve always heard it was a game for older people but I know a lot of young kids that are playing here in Morton,” said Beebe.
Joann Blair, a math teacher for 32 years who serves as the part-time assistant principal at South Pekin Grade School, admitted to a love for the game.
“I’ve played tennis for 40 years and I know some tennis people weren’t happy with the arrival of pickleball, but the game is so fast. Pickleball games can be sometimes completed in 10 to 15 minutes,” she said.
Blair, who helps organize both tennis and pickleball at Parkside in Pekin, said one of the reasons pickleball has become so popular is that it’s an easy game to play. “People who have played tennis pick it up immediately, but you don’t have to play tennis to enjoy pickleball,” she said.
The next step in pickleball’s ascension will be to crack the Olympics. Once more countries get on board, Mitchell feels that’s a real possibility.
For the curious who haven’t fallen under pickleball’s spell as yet, Mitchell suggests checking out his Facebook page to find the latest information on the sport.
Steve Tarter is a Peoria Magazine contributor who was
born in England, raised in Boston, moved to Peoria to
attend Bradley University and decided to stay.
He has spent a career in journalism and public relations.