Pickleball enthusiasts seek to spread sport in Steamboat | SteamboatToday.com

Pickleball enthusiasts seek to spread sport in Steamboat

Mary Lou Gallup and Jay Readinger rush for a return Friday while playing pickleball on the tennis courts at the base of Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs. The pair learned the sport in Florida, where it's hugely popular in senior citizens communities, and is trying to help it catch on in their new home of Steamboat.
Joel Reichenberger

Pickleball equipment can be expensive — lightweight paddles can cost nearly $100 — but it doesn't have to be. Paddles are available for around $25 and the ball, a simple wiffle ball, costs less than $5.Joel Reichenberger

If you go

Interested in playing the sport? Jay Readinger encouraged any curious players — new to the sport or veterans — to call him at 207-557-0456.

— On a warm Friday morning, it packed all the shouts of joy and grunts of frustration as tennis, all the sweating of a good jog and even the warm handshakes of a game well played.

Pickleball looks like a mutated version of tennis, or pingpong on steroids: some sort of badminton, racquetball, wiffle ball hybrid. It seems like its main components should be sold from a sporting goods store in a cardboard box shelved next to the volleyball sets designed for backyards and the lawn darts with all the warning labels.

Still, on Friday it amounted to a sweet sport for a trio of couples taking turns battling it out on the tennis courts at the base of Howelsen Hill in downtown Steamboat Springs.

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With steps slower than tennis and a game that is more accessible than racquetball and much larger than pingpong, pickleball in Steamboat is in what some locals hope is the early stages of a revolution.

Catching on

Pickleball was invented in the 1960s by a group in Washington, the game earning its decidedly silly name from Pickles, a dog owned by one of the founders.

In the years since, plenty have played the game in high school gym class, but more recently it has become a phenomenon with senior citizens communities, where pickleball courts have been built in some cases and the court sketched in on under-used tennis courts in others.

The Villages retirement community in Florida boasts more than 100 purpose-built pickleball courts, and Arizona communities feature a wide array of places to play.

"It is absolutely a growing sport," said David Johnson, spokesman for the USA Pickleball Association, who estimated that there are 100,000 players nationwide. "We're seeing growth throughout the United States and Canada."

It was in that environment that Friday's Steamboat players discovered and fell in love with pickleball.

Bill and Sue Leeson, longtime Craig residents, began in 2000 splitting their years between Steamboat and Casa Grande in southern Arizona, where they learned the sport. 

George and Anita Rimler, on a monthlong vacation in Steamboat, and Jay Readinger and his wife, Mary Lou Gallup, learned in Florida, where the Rimlers live and where Readinger and Gallup visited before settling down recently in Steamboat.

It's a familiar migration pattern.

"What we're seeing is often times those in the 55-plus crowd get introduced to it in the south, in Arizona and Florida, then take it back to their summer residences," Johnson said. "For instance, we've gotten really extensive growth in Michigan. We're seeing more of it in Pennsylvania. We're getting more and more interest from Colorado."

Easy to grasp

Those who have come under pickleball's spell swear by it.

"It's easier," Readinger said.

The court is far shorter than a traditional tennis court, though of the same general design. The net is slightly lower, as well.

Players — usually doubles teams, though some do play singles matches — take turns serving a wiffle ball. Each serve must be underhanded, and the ball must bounce once both before the receiving team returns the serve and before the serving team returns it back.

The bouncing requirement before the first two returns of each volley helps slow the game down.

There's also a zone in front of the net where players can't hit the ball unless it has bounced, preventing a player from waiting near the net to smash a ball hard for a point.

"It is a more gentle form of tennis," Anita Rimler said. "The courts are short, and you don't have to run as far, and it doesn't hurt your knees as much.

"It's fun because it's competitive. When you can't play tennis and you can't do a lot of competitive things, you feel (bad). But when you can do this and be competitive and have fun, it gives you a whole new existence."

Bringing it home

Readinger and Gallup hope to be on the leading edge of pickleball's development in Steamboat. Upon arriving in town this month, Readinger searched for fellow players and, finding no local organization, submitted his own name as a USAPA ambassador for the town. He's since helped organize games at the Howelsen tennis courts and is always on the lookout for players.

He plans to introduce the game at The Lowell Whiteman School, where he and Gallup will share the job of school business manager.

The basic tools to play aren't expensive, with paddles starting online at about $20 and balls available for about $3.

Readinger has got a long way to go to truly turn Steamboat to the sport. Although several locals set up courts in driveways during the summer, there are no actual courts in town. Neither the Old Town Hot Springs nor the Tennis Center of Steamboat Springs reports any players asking to use their tennis courts for pickleball, though Tennis Center Director Jim Swiggart said just as his facility opened its indoor courts to dodgeball for a period, it would listen to any group looking to set up on its real estate.

A steady stream of questions while the group played in Steamboat was at least evidence that even if the sport hasn't caught on, it is turning heads.

"It's very addictive," Readinger said. "I suspect there's a lot of people who either live here or visit here who play. We'll get it going this winter indoors."

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

If you go

Interested in playing the sport? Jay Readinger encouraged any curious players — new to the sport or veterans — to call him at 207-557-0456.

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