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The Pickleball Spear-it

Young and old relish growing sport

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For more information visit idpickleball.usapa.org or usapa.org.

It's tennis on a smaller scale. No. It's ping pong writ large. Not exactly. Um ... it's badminton with a lower net and weird equipment? Well, not quite.

Actually, it's called pickleball, and this sport with a goofy name and Northwest origins aims to get participants of all ages off their seats and having fun together.

Imagine tennis on a court about half its usual size. Now replace the tennis racket with what looks like a ping-pong paddle on steroids. And while you're at it, swap out a tennis ball for a wiffle ball. That's what pickleball looks like from the sidelines.

On the court, the action is fast-paced. Serves may not be delivered with the blazing speed of a Rafael Nadal smash. However, with such a small court, reaction times have to be quick, because the ball gets to you in a heartbeat. And if you're playing doubles, the ball often won't even touch the ground during volleys, further quickening the pace.

Game play is flexible enough, however, that just about anyone can play. A 5-year-old child can get in on the action, while his 85-year-old great-grandfather can be his doubles partner.

To demonstrate the age range of those who have taken up the sport, pickleball videos on YouTube range from teens and young adults making diving saves and performing trick shots to seniors participating in age-specific tourneys.

Pickleball's origin can be traced to Washington nearly 50 years ago, when a politician got creative while trying to keep children entertained at a family picnic. He drew chalk lines in the driveway, set up a badminton net at ground level, gave the kids some wooden paddles and had them hit a wiffle ball back and forth.

And the origin of the name? Well, that story is rather straightforward. The family dog at this get-together loved to chase down any balls that went astray. That dog's name was, of course, Pickles, and the moniker stuck. While Pickles may be gone, his legacy endures through the game he loved--or may have despised, since they took his ball away in order to play it.

If you've ever so much as swung a ping-pong paddle or watched a few seconds of Wimbledon coverage, you'll learn the game in no time. In a nutshell, you hit the ball back and forth, getting a point for your opponent's missed shots. The first to 11 wins. However, there is at least one idiosyncrasy that makes the sport unique.

Because pickleball is intended as a family game, to keep things from getting too intense, a 7-foot safety zone, called the "kitchen," is established on both sides of the net. (The origin of that term was, unfortunately, not unearthed.) Players cannot enter this area until the ball bounces, minimizing the chance of a sizzling, intimidating and/or painful return volley.

Carson Spencer is the Treasure Valley's leading pickleball proponent. In fact, Spencer is such a strong advocate for the sport that he has a USA Pickleball Association business card with the title "Ambassador" printed on it.

"It's a safety rule they put in a long time ago, and it simply makes the game a little less threatening," Spencer explained. After all, no one wants Grandma Betty to take a pickleball shot to the noggin.

One of Spencer's primary goals is making the game approachable for new players. He said many discover the game by coming across others playing. The newcomers give it a try and the next thing they know, they're hooked. These new recruits then pass it on to their family and friends.

These days, the game is played not only all across America but internationally, both for fun and as a serious sport. There is a national association with a website, usapa.org, and tournaments range from citywide competitions to national events, with divisions based on age and skill level. A rating system puts players on a 1-to-5 scale so that like-skilled competitors can face off. This way, top-notch talents don't waste their time, and new players can get their feet wet without being humiliated by an innocent-looking retiree with a delicious banana muffin recipe and a wicked backhand.

Often devoted players on vacation will seek out locations they can stop by during their trip to get in some matches, and the USAPA website is helpful. Recently many cruise ships have set up pickleball courts on their decks, and some schools are integrating the sport into their physical education programs.

Locally Spencer worked with the Boise Parks and Recreation Department to get approval to use Hobble Creek Park for matches. Additionally, the downtown YMCA and Boise State Student Recreation Center provide playing areas. Spencer also noted that pickleball was an event at the recent Idaho Senior Games, with approximately 75 participants representing nearly 10 states.

David Johnson, USAPA's media-relations chairman, heaped great praise on the role people like Spencer have played in growing the game.

"Our ambassadors are a crown jewel of the organization," Johnson said.

And, indeed, those efforts are paying off, as Johnson estimates 100,000 people across the United States participate in the sport, with nearly 2,000 rated players, about 400 of whom play in the national tourneys. And those numbers are increasing rapidly. Spencer calls pickleball the "fastest-growing sport in America."

And in that spirit, anyone wishing to give the game a try can contact Spencer through the USAPA website. He is confident the fun and friendship you'll discover on the pickleball courts will be addictive.

"It's getting older people up off the couch. It's getting grandkids coming out playing with grandpa," he said. "It is booming across the country."

If you do give pickleball a try, don't be surprised if Spencer is on the other side of the court, schooling you while sporting a monster-sized racket in one hand and a banana muffin in the other.