Have you ever heard of pickleball?
It's the sport popular among adults around retirement age that's sweeping across Howard County and the Baltimore area. Similar to tennis or badminton, pickleball is played with a racquet and plastic ball with holes on a smaller, tennis-like court.
Because of the sport's growing popularity in recent years, the Howard County Department of Recreation & Parks opened the first dedicated outdoor pickleball courts in the county at Atholton Park in Columbia, Md., in May.
"We first started back in the summer of 2014," said Howard County Recreation and Parks recreation services coordinator Amanda Bartell. "We offered a free play day to see what the interest level was, and then we moved forward with the program we offer now -- Pickleball for All -- and it is essentially a timeframe where anyone can come and play."
The response from the community was immediate, and the Howard County Pickleball Association was formed in 2016. That group, already 140 members strong, has had no trouble attracting new members.
"It only took me a little while of playing before I decided that I wanted to play as much as I possibly could because it really is fun," said Howard County Pickleball Association president Duane St. Clair. "… Pickleball, because of the pace you play it at and the way it's played, it really kind of hooks people. I've seen a number of people in our first year that have come out to try pickleball, and now every time we play I see them. They had the same reaction, too -- once they tried it, they kind of got hooked on it."
Better known in other parts of the country, pickleball made its way to the Baltimore area with returning snowbirds who first experienced the sport when traveling south for the winter. As a result, the typical age of the competitive player runs older, but the sport appeals to groups of all ages who have had the chance to learn and play.
Older players enjoy it because it requires less movement than sports such as tennis and racquetball but still gives participants an opportunity to stay active. The pace can easily be adjusted to age, mobility and skill level.
"Most people playing pickleball play doubles, and that's probably because a lot of people playing are retirement age, but you find a lot of younger people playing singles, which is a very fast-paced game," St. Clair said. "Unlike tennis, where you can get fairly long rallies, singles pickleball is usually just a couple of hits. You are playing on a smaller court, but there is just too much of the court to cover that easily."
With the popularity of the sport quickly rising, groups such as Howard County Recreation and Parks, the Columbia Association and others that manage tennis courts and similar facilities find themselves rushing to respond to requests for more opportunities to play pickleball.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Howard County Pickleball Association
Competition from tennis and other racquet sports leagues and events means that prime pickleball court time can be difficult to find at the limited indoor and outdoor facilities in the area that are properly sized and lined for the game.
"We began pushing for the outdoor courts because they are pickleball specific and we will be using them for pickleball programs, and we don't have to compete with anyone else for that space," Bartell said. "I am constantly in communication with the Meadowbrook Athletic Complex and the North Laurel Community Center to see if any space opens up so that we can utilize that for pickleball play as well."
Moving forward, Howard County Recreation and Parks is organizing the first pickleball tournament in the county at the Meadowbrook Athletic Complex in August, and Bartell said they are also planning to partner with county schools to introduce the sport to kids in the fall.
"It really is something you can play your entire life," said St. Clair, who also has plans to help bring the sport to Howard County schools.
Individuals interested in learning to play pickleball or finding a place to play in Howard County can visit the Howard County Pickleball Association website at howardcountypickleball.org. The USA Pickleball Association also offers opportunities to learn about the sport nationwide at usapa.org.
Issue 235: July 2017