Racquetball Equipment

Rising popularity of pickleball permeates Peoria-area parks

More and more people in the Peoria area are taking up a new recreational activity: Pickleball. And it’s not just the elderly.

Austin Boltz is among a group of pickleball players gathered on a sunny Thursday afternoon on the tennis courts near Charter Oak Elementary School in Peoria. A 26-year-old transplant recipient from Oregon, Boltz said he didn’t expect to be drawn to the sport.

“I remember about two weeks before I started playing, my colleague – she’s maybe around 50, I’d say – she made the comment about playing pickleball, and I was like, ‘ “Oh, it’s totally an old people’s sport. You know, just retirees who get out and move around,” Boltz said. “Now after playing it and watching it I would say I was very wrong and I really enjoy playing it. It’s a good little practice and a good fun time.

Boltz said he and a few friends at his apartment complex got hooked on pickleball pretty quickly after participating in an open play session. They bought paddles online and now play three or four days a week.

“I really like ping pong, so I feel like it’s that style of ping pong game, so you can really spin the ball,” he said. “But also like it’s really a cerebral game in terms of placement on moving people, and I feel like it reminds me of not just the current shot, but maybe a shot or two at come.”

Kelly Eckert is also one of the attendees at this public session in Charter Oak and a big pickleball advocate in the Peoria area. She said Boltz and other players her age helped increase the sport’s popularity.

“You know, I think it’s word of mouth. I think people are starting to realize how much fun it is, and you can take it really seriously or you can take it from a different perspective and… have fun with it,” Eckert said. “So I think the younger group, like we have tonight, we have a lot of young people who want to play. They’re working during the day, they’re looking for something different to do, and it’s something different I think until you try it you don’t realize how much fun it is.

A Princeville resident in her 50s, Eckert said she was introduced to the sport a few years ago while visiting her parents in Florida. She then began performing more regularly when she returned home.

“It appeals to me because I like to socialize and play,” she said. “I met fantastic people; we have a good time, we laugh, we have fun. It just makes you want to go out and improve.

“You get better every time you play. My biggest thing is that I tell people: “The more you play, the better you are going to be”. So often that’s the most important thing: just get out here and keep going. »

Eckert is a member of the Peoria Area Pickleball Info group on Facebook which has over 1,000 members. Mike Mitchell is one of the group’s administrators and acts as a local sports ambassador.

Mitchell said he certainly sees interest in pickleball growing across the region, from large communities like Peoria and Beijing to small towns like Dunlap and Washburn.

“What I’ve seen, and I mean the stats prove it, is a lot of communities around here have put pickleball in, converting a lot of tennis courts to pickleball,” Mitchell said. “I think the main reason is that it’s fun; two, a lot of your older tennis players are getting older and pickleball is more of a doubles game, plus our court is a lot smaller and it’s definitely a social type of game.

Mitchell said pickleball’s growing popularity is also evident in the number of people attending the clinics he holds in various communities.

“With the park district, about two or three times a year, we will organize a clinic for beginners. In fact, to show you its growth, last year we did like three clinics,” he said. “The first (clinic) I think we had about 60 people; the second clinic had about 50 people, I think, and the last one about 40 people. So there is a lot of interest in this area.

Peoria Park District Executive Director Emily Cahill said they are taking steps to accommodate the growing number of pickleball players in the area.

“What we’re hearing is that it’s being picked up by people of all ages, and so thinking about those evening hours and access for people who are still working 9 to 5, or whatever — that’s one of our challenges, is how to balance all of these different demands while supporting other users of the park district,” she said.

“So we’re working to figure that out and we’re starting with a lot of daytime hours and a few evening hours where we can, and hopefully we can find that balance based on how people what the local demand is and how we we can support it.

With the colder months approaching, Cahill said they will also have indoor pickleball courts in places like Owens Center and the RiverPlex, adding that she was pleased to see the facilities in the Park District filled with players. of pickleball.

“Oh, that’s fantastic. I like to go to Glen Oak Park in the morning and walk past it and you hear that pickleball ‘plink, plink, plink’,” Cahill said. “There are people lining up to play and they’re having a good time. So, it’s so good to see people in space and really using our parks.

“Then you’ll often see them after playing, hanging out at picnic tables or taking walks in the park and just taking advantage of the opportunities for social engagement in our places and spaces – and that’s why we’re here. ”

Eckert said the game’s broad appeal is why interest is growing.

“I realized that you don’t have to be an athlete to play this sport. You don’t need to have a background in racquetball, tennis, or table tennis; you can be any age and any level and just go out and have a good time and learn,” Eckert said.

“We kind of split it a bit in Peoria, where we have these people who are more advanced who want to play against advanced players. The other group is called the ‘Fun, Fit and Friends’ pickleball group, which I kind of started separately. It’s for people who have never played, want to learn how to play and aren’t intimidated to come out and try.

“I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve found is that people were afraid to come out and try because they didn’t want to be embarrassed. So we’re very welcoming. lets try, they are given paddles, and if they like it great. But if not, that’s OK too. I feel like they realize that once they don’t feel intimidated anymore, they come out here and say, “I can do it.” Everybody does it.

Mitchell said he first learned about pickleball while working at Galesburg Jail.

“Some of the staff were taking their lunch break and playing pickleball. I would look at them and be like, ‘Well, I play tennis. I play with a real ball and a real racquet. And, they had their bands together, so for several years I saw them play and I never played,” Mitchell said.

“When I retired and moved to Peoria, I was looking for something to do and I watched the park district program and saw pickleball. I was like, ‘OK, well, let me try.’ From day one I was hooked, and from there I got more involved, became an ambassador and started helping different facilities here get set up. So I put the pickleball down the longest, then after a while I picked it up and now I can’t put it down.

Mitchell said starter equipment costs are quite reasonable, with paddles available online for around $40-$60.

“Then you get maybe balls, which can be in the range of three for $10, so you can get in there for less than $70,” Mitchell said. “And those paddles last a long time, while balls may or may not, and if you’re going to an indoor facility, wooden paddles will usually be provided. Generally, our indoor sessions cost between $4 and $5 for a few hours per player; outside is free.

Cahill said pickleball’s rapid growth is relatively unusual.

“Before my time, I would tell you tennis probably did that. Golf developed when Tiger Woods was at its peak. That kind of start, though, for a sport that’s new is unique, and so we’re trying to catch up – I think a lot of people do, don’t we? – for supply and demand to meet,” she said.

“But I think at the park district we’re very thoughtfully committing our resources to supporting that, because it’s one of those things that’s growing very quickly now – but like some of these other sports, that is it long term? So trying to balance sustainability with current demand is something we talk about every day in the park district.

Cahill hopes the Park District can muster enough good players to start supporting tournaments. Boltz said he was sure pickleball’s popularity would continue to rise.

“Ah, 100%. I just saw the other day that LeBron James just (announced) a sponsorship for an upcoming pickleball league,” Boltz said. “He’s definitely growing and getting bigger. I know there was a tournament in St. Louis and I think there was one in Chicago this year, so I think it’s a growing sport.

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