Pickleball on rise for older athletes

senior games: Homegrown and popular nationally, hybrid sport is attracting such senior athletes as Lacey’s Suzie Ross, 78

mwochnick@theolympian.comJuly 28, 2012 

Suzie Ross grew up at time when females had limited opportunities to play sports. Now, the 78-year-old fires up her competitive juices five days a week playing one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States for men and women 50 and older – pickleball.

“I was one of those frustrated people from the ’50s who couldn’t play because they didn’t have girls sports,” Ross said. “Here, I’m getting my chance.”

Many pickleball players have a background in tennis or badminton, which makes for an easy transition. Ross got her start five years ago, drawing on her experience as a four-year tennis player at Hope College in Holland, Mich., in the 1950s. She returned to Washington and taught physical education at Clover Park High School in Lakewood until her retirement in 1993.

When Ross moved to Jubilee, a 55-and-older residential community in Lacey, pickleball was just being introduced in 2007 and she was encouraged to try it. Now, she’s one of 75 pickleball club members and plays on Jubilee’s two designated courts.

“I love the competition,” she said.

The sport is one of the more popular at the annual Washington State Senior Games. The majority of the events will be held this weekend at various venues around South Sound, including track and field (Tumwater District Stadium), swimming (Briggs Community YMCA) and pickleball (Lakewood Community Center in Lakewood).

Pickleball originated on Bainbridge Island in 1965 when three men – Congressman Joel Pritchard and friends Bill Bell and Barney McCallum – created the sport with wooden paddles, a whiffle ball and a tennis court net lowered to 34 inches. Not surprisingly, the nation’s largest online pickleball equipment store grew up in Kent, just off Interstate.

Pickleball competitions have been held every year since the Senior Games debuted in 1996, and their popularity has increased despite the limited courts in South Sound. With its six courts, Lakewood Community Center provides the most courts in the region, and has been home to the Senior Games event since 2005. Before that, the event had been played at Timberline High School, Stevens Field, and The Valley Athletic Club.

“We quickly outgrew them (courts at The Valley) and the closest facility to play pickleball where the lines were already there was in Lakewood,” said Jack Kiley, president of the Washington State Senior Games.

So why is this game thriving after almost half a century, and becoming popular with baby boomers? Many say it’s the game’s simplicity and ease of play. Gerald Redburg, a Lacey resident who is the Senior Games’ pickleball commissioner, said the sport is a less-intense combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong – perfect for people who want competition, exercise and something easy to learn.

Redburg learned how to play pickleball in the 1980s as a teacher at Curtis High School. The United States Pickleball Association now estimates there are more than 100,000 pickleball players nationwide.

“A lot of people can do it,” said Redburg, 77. “You get everything involved in tennis, but it’s different.”

Of the 1,800 registered Senior Games participants, Redburg said 95 will play pickleball singles, doubles and mixed-doubles today and Sunday. That’s a significant boost, he said, from previous years that featured between 65-75 players.

This is the first time pickleball will be included at the 2013 National Senior Games in Cleveland. This is a qualifying year for nationals.

For Ross, this will be her third consecutive year at the state Senior Games. She will have two new partners in the 75-79 age group. Bev Franko will join her in the women’s doubles, and Clint Duncan will be her mixed doubles partner.

She admits she gets a rise out of competition, especially showing off her quick reflexes.

“Even though I’m 78, “Ross said, “I can get a ball nobody thinks I can get. That kind of thing makes you feel good. I love to scamper around the court and try to get anything.”

mwochnick@theolympian.com 360-754-5473 www.theolympian.com/southsoundsports @megwochnick

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