What do you get when you combine a badminton court, over-sized table tennis paddles and a Wiffle Ball?
The answer, of course, is pickleball.
The oddly-named sport combines aspects of badminton (it’s played on a doubles badminton court), tennis (the net is hung about three feet from the ground) and table tennis (players use large wooden paddles).
Players hit a perforated plastic ball back and forth with the aim of forcing their opponent to either miss or hit it out of bounds. Games are played to 11 points and usually last between 15 and 20 minutes.
The game, which is played both one-on-one and in pairs, was recently added to the program schedule at the North Delta Recreation Centre and is available at Sungod Recreation Centre and Kennedy Seniors Recreation Centre. It can also be found at many schools, community centres and seniors’ centres in Delta and across the region.
According to Chuck Lefaive, founding director of BC Pickleball Association, the sport has grown quite a bit in Canada in recent years. In fact, he says, there are roughly the same number of players registered in the two Canadian national tournaments (about 800 between the western and eastern championships) as there are in their American counterparts.
From July 8 to 10 and for the second year in a row, Kelowna hosted over 400 players from across North America for Pickleball Canada’s National Western Tournament. The city is already announced as the host of next year’s competition.
“That’s an amazing feat, considering we started with three locations 10 years ago,” Lefaive said. “Now we have 1,000 locations across Canada. Almost every community you can think of has pickleball now and most people have never heard of it.”
For many the sport may seem to have come out of nowhere, but it actually predates the Apollo 11 moon landing by a few years. Pickleball was invented back in 1965, when then-Washington State Representative Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum returned to Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island near Seattle after a day of golf to find their families sitting around bored with nothing to do.
As the story goes, the men tried to get a game of badminton going but were missing the necessary equipment. Instead, they improvised a game using ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball, setting the net at a height of 36 inches so that the kids could play too. Over time, they developed a set of rules (based largely on badminton) and thus the sport of pickleball was born.
“It was a family sport and we’re trying to keep it a family sport. But there is a competitive edge to it,” Lefaive said. “Competition on one side, recreational family sport on the other side, and hopefully we can marry all of them and keep everybody happy and grow the sport.”
Accounts differ as to the origin of the name. In one version, Pritchard’s wife Joan, an avid rower, named the makeshift game after the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.
The more popular version of the story is that the Pritchards’ dog Pickles would often grab errant balls and hide in the bushes, thus making them “Pickles’ balls.” Over time, the name was shortened and stuck.
(In a column she wrote in July 2008 for the Parkersburg, West Virginia News and Sentinel, Joan Pritchard confirmed the former story, saying the family got the dog two years after the game was invented. She went on to say the dog was actually named for the game, but that “stories about the name’s origin were funnier thinking the game was named for the dog.”)
Carlos Felip (left) of North Delta and Chuck Lefaive, founding director of BC Pickleball, reach for a shot during a doubles game at the North Delta Recreation Centre. James Smith photo
North Delta resident Carlos Felip has only been playing pickleball for a little over a year, but has already won tournaments at the North Delta and Sungod Recreation Centres. The retired professional volleyball player stumbled onto pickleball while on a transatlantic cruise in May 2015 and hasn’t looked back since.
“One day I was a little bored…and I see these guys playing something funny in the basketball court with the paddles and a ball,” Felip said. “A fanatic from Florida had gone onto the boat with the net, paddles, balls, everything. It was great. We played just about everyday that the boat was at sea.”
When he got back, Felip started looking for somewhere to play this new game, and found to his surprise that they were playing it across the street from his home at the Kennedy Seniors Recreation Centre.
“So I went to play there and the rest is gravy.I just kept playing.”
Felip says the strength of the game is that it can be played by anyone, young or old, and that players needn’t be particularly skilled or at the same level as one another to enjoy the game.
“If you are absolutely new to the game but you are able to hit the ball, even badly, you can play and have fun,” Felip said. “If you are a real- ly competitive, ultra-athletic person that really wants to win and you’ve played sports all your life, you’ll have a lot of fun. You can play it at any level and it’s still fun, and that’s why it’s hooking so many people. Even the top player can play with the lowest player.”
Bill MacGregor, president of the Canadian Pickleball Federation, says the ease with which people of all ages and abilities can enter the sport is the key to its popularity and has made it an attractive addition to schools’ physical education curriculums.
“There’s always some kids who aren’t athletically inclined or they’re hard to fit in, and they tend to sit back and watch. We found that a lot of these kids—and even the teachers were quite surprised—they could get the paddle and they could still bounce [the ball] and have fun,” MacGregor said. “They were starting to engage themselves, whereas before they’d sit back real timid-like and not participate. That’s the kind of wonder of the game.”
MacGregor says schools ought to work towards having competitive teams and play against one another, noting all of them already have badminton markings on their gym floors and many of them already have the paddles and balls. He adds the low cost of equipment (basic wooden paddles cost around $20 and the balls are a only few dollars each) makes pickleball an economic choice for schools, rec centres and players.
For more information on where and when pickleball is available, visit delta.ca/parks-recreation/activity-search.