Pickleball on the rise in New Ulm

NEW ULM – Some great ideas catch on quick; others take time to find the right audience.

The game of pickleball falls in the latter category. It has been around since the mid 1960s but only recently caught on locally.

Pickleball is one of the fastest growing sports in America, according to Park & Rec Program Supervisor Joey Schugel.

Schugel described pickleball as combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Despite the name, pickles are not involved. The origin of the game’s name is something of a mystery. The consensus is pickleball was invented in Washington state, but there is some debate if it was named after the inventor’s dog or a type of fishing boat.

The game is played on a badminton size court with a tennis net. Instead of racquets, players use large paddles made from wood or composite materials. The ball resembles a wiffle ball, but it is made out of hard rubber instead of plastic. The game can be played one-on-one, but most people play doubles. The object of the game is to be the first to score 11 points.

Last year the New Ulm Rec Center started hosting open pickleball play on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Rec Center has three courts specially marked for pickleball, and each court is typically filled to capacity.

The question is, why is a game that is 50 years old becoming popular now? Schugel cited two reasons for pickleball’s new-found popularity. First, the game is relatively easy to learn. Second, the game is suitable for all ages and has caught on with the senior crowd.

Most of New Ulm’s pickleball players have reached retirement age and have adopted the sport as a new hobby. Players freely refer to the game as “old people tennis.” As the Baby Boomer generation nears retirement age, many have adopted pickleball as a new hobby.

The appeal of pickleball is that while the sport requires physical activity, being younger is not a major advantage. “Strategy is important,” said Schugel. “The expert players know how to play with limited movements.”

Each round begins with an underhand serve that must bounce in the opposing court. The next return back over the net must also bounce.

After these first two casual hits the gloves come off and the players can become more aggressive. The ball no longer needs to bounce, meaning player are free to swat the ball back. Players are restricted from entering a no-volley zone seven feet from the net to prevent spiking, but a variety of other tactics are available. Some long-time players have perfect spin techniques making the balls trajectory hard to predict. “King of Spin” is a coveted title among many of the New Ulm players.

Pickleball is a very social game. Most of the regular players at the Rec Center are married couples, which is perfect for doubles play. Mike and Nancy Stark have been playing pickleball since discovering the sport while on vacation. “It’s the hottest thing in the southern part of the country,” said Mike.

The Starks are not the only ones to find the game while on vacation. Many of the couples playing at the Rec Center are snow birds who picked up the game while traveling to Florida or Arizona.

Diane Dallmann is credited with bringing pickleball to New Ulm. She was visiting her sister in Phoenix a year and half ago. Her sister was an avid player, and Dallmann bought a paddle to play with her. Back in New Ulm Dallmann still had her paddle and wanted to get most out of it. Not long afterward Dallmann convinced the Rec Center to hold open pickleball.

For many the greatest delay in joining the game is finding a suitable paddle. Because pickleball is relatively new to the Midwest, finding equipment is difficult. The Rec Center does provide the necessary equipment, but the rental paddles are made from wood. Dedicated pickleballers prefer a lighter weight composite paddle. Those looking to invest in a paddle may need to buy down south or online.

Schugel said pickleball has been well attended during the winter, and the number of regular players was likely to increase with the return of many snowbirds.

With more players returning and the weather warming up pickleball will be transitions from the Rec Center indoor courts to the outdoor courts at Washington Park. Starting in May, players sick of being cooped up all winter are invited to the Washington Park courts on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6-8 p,m. Indoor pickleball will still be offered at the New Ulm Recreation Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:30-2 p.m. and starting in May from 2-4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

For questions on anything pickleball please contact New Ulm Parks and Recreation at 507-359-8343.

It is free for members and $4.75 for non-members.

Pickle Ball was created by a family in Seattle in 1965. This makes the game nearly 50 years old, but its recent popularity surged in the southern parts of the United States.

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