MIDDLEBURY — “Pickleball.”
The name is comical, but the sport’s growing number of players are super-serious about an activity that is taking Middlebury’s new recreation facility by storm.
“It’s really a phenomenon,” Middlebury Parks & Recreation Department Director Terri Arnold said of the emergence of pickleball, now on par with “futsal” (indoor soccer) as the most popular pick-up sport at the rec center on Creek Road. Three days each week, more than 20 players — many of them north of 60 years old — take turns on the center’s three pickleball courts, volleying a perforated plastic ball back and forth in a hybrid sport that is equal parts pingpong and tennis.
Mike Korkuc, who lives near Lake Dunmore, plays pickleball five to seven days per week.
“It’s great exercise and a lot of fun,” he said, adding it’s a “wonderful” way to meet new people.
Korkuc is an active senior who enjoys hiking and snowshoeing. But pickleball also satisfies his thirst for competition, which he used to get through tennis.
“I need competition to keep moving,” he said. “This is nice, friendly competition. Two hours goes by and you don’t realize you’ve had any exercise. And you sleep well at night.”
Why did they call it “pickleball?” According to a brief history on the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) website, the originators named it after the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, who would chase the ball and run off with it.
A pickleball court is the same size as a doubles badminton court — 20 feet by 44 feet. The net height is 36 inches at the sidelines and 34 inches in the middle. The court is striped similar to a tennis court with right and left service courts and a 7-foot, non-volley zone in front of the net, known as the “kitchen.”
The sport has really caught on since its invention 52 years ago, during which it has been refined in many ways.
According to the USAPA, there are now more than 15,000 indoor and outdoor pickleball courts in the country, with at least one location in all 50 states. Middlebury’s new recreation facility has emerged as one of Vermont’s premier pickleball palaces, thanks to Arnold and a solid Addison County contingent of players. For a contribution of $2, enthusiasts can get their fill of pickleball on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 8 to 10 a.m., and from 9 to 11 a.m. on Saturdays.
“You have a mixture of levels here — beginners, longtime players and ‘medium’ players,” Arnold said of the local pickleball crowd. “They all play together.”
It was two years ago that resident Neil Gruber approached local recreation officials about getting pickleball started in Middlebury.
“He brought us a portable net and said, ‘I’m willing to teach a clinic outside,’” Arnold recalled.
Twenty people showed up for Gruber’s first pickleball clinic at Middlebury’s recreation park.
Participants enjoyed the experience and wanted more. But their playing opportunities were limited by Mother Nature. This was before construction of Middlebury’s new recreation center, so enthusiasts were in a pickle if the weather outside was frightful.
“When we were building this recreation facility, I said, ‘We have to have pickleball courts,’” Arnold said.
She conceded not everyone shared the pickleball priority.
“I was asked, ‘Are you sure we’re going to need them?’” Arnold recalled of some town officials’ reaction. “I said, ‘This is going to be big.’”
So builders included the requisite colored lines and net moorings for three regulation pickleball courts.
And once they built it, people came. And they are coming in ever increasing numbers to play a sport that is now an event in the National Senior Games.
On this particular Thursday, former Vermont First Lady Dorothy Douglas and son Andrew joined the pickleball rotation at the Middlebury recreation facility.
“It is not uncommon for 20 to 25 people to be here on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday,” Arnold said. “Saturdays, it’s insane.”
Middlebury offers mostly pickup games, but that’s changing, The town’s rec facility hosted its first double-elimination pickleball tourney on Dec. 3; it drew 16 teams. Most of the regulars hail from the Middlebury area, but a few come from as far away as Mariah, N.Y.
The drop-in fee is $2, or they can get an even bigger bargain with a $10 punch card that entitles them to seven sessions.
GAIL AND GEORGE Pilger compete in the Middlebury Recreation Department’s recent pickleball tournament. Middlebury has three indoor courts in the town’s new recreation center and two outdoor courts in the town rec park.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Middlebury’s three indoor courts and two dedicated outdoor courts at its recreation park make it arguably the most pickleball-friendly community in the state, according to Arnold. Outdoor pickleball uses a ball with smaller holes, to better regulate the speed of the orb’s pace off of asphalt.
Still the number of players often exceeds the number of Middlebury’s available courts. So players must wait in line for courts to free up. Doubles teams rotate in and out, with winners staying in until they are defeated.
Those waiting in line for a court usually don’t sit idle too long — often just 5 or 10 minutes. Games are usually played to 11. So it’s not unusual for participants in the Middlebury drop-in sessions to play a dozen games per session.
Watching the games is a lot of fun, too.
“The rallies,” Arnold said of the pinnacle of pickleball play. “It’s unbelievable.”
It’s interesting to see the progress in individual players, Arnold added.
“Beginners start frustrated; they miss the ball a lot and we laugh a lot,” Arnold said. “But they move up really fast. It’s one of those games where get up and running very quickly.”
Novice players start out with basic equipment, and usually upgrade as they become more proficient in the sport, Arnold noted. The average, rudimentary pickleball paddle is made of wood. But players now use paddles primarily made of lightweight composite materials, including fiberglass, aluminum and graphite. Paddles have evolved to a size that is between a pingpong paddle and a tennis racquet. The pickleballs are still made of plastic, are slightly smaller than a whiffle ball, and come in several colors.
Locally, Forth ‘N Goal carries a nice range of pickleball supplies, according to Arnold.
Most pickleball players tend to be seniors, and that’s certainly true of the majority of Middlebury-area practitioners, several of whom reside at the two local retirement communities.
“It’s keeping them moving,” Arnold said. “Anyone can play, whether you’ve played tennis before or not. If you’ve played tennis, you do have a little bit of an advantage, because you have good hand-eye coordination. But even if you haven’t played tennis, you learn. You’re embarrassed the first few times you play … but before you know it, you’re able to compete with some of the better players here.”
Arnold said the sport is starting to appeal to all ages. She’s joined the crowd.
“I’d be playing right now if I could,” she smiled. She’s become a regular on Saturdays.
Neither sleet, hail, snow nor even holidays will impede passionate pickleballers from their appointed rounds. A group even reserved some court space in the rec center this past Christmas Day.
“The reason I like it is because you have to concentrate,” Arnold said. “You can’t for one second take your mind off of what you’re doing. That ball moves fast, and your reaction has to be fast. You work up a sweat.”
Arnold also enjoys the camaraderie among players.
“We all really like each other,” Arnold said. “It’s a really cohesive group.”
Korkuc has helped the pickleball community stay connected.
He is the county’s main clearinghouse for Addison County pickleball information, including the scheduling of tournaments and newsletters.
“He said, ‘We’ve got to get a handle on this,’” Arnold said of Korkuc’s efforts to coordinate the local passion for pickleball.
Korkuc’s pickleball email list has grown to around 100 players, according to Arnold.
“Not all of them (come to play), but all have expressed an interest,” Arnold said. “At least once or twice per week, I will get a phone call from someone saying, ‘I’ve heard you’ve got pickleball. If I show up, can I learn how to play?’”
Tai Hazard, 80, has been playing pickleball in Middlebury since last spring. She had broken her wrist playing racquetball, and pickleball got her back into the swing of things.
“It’s a really active sport,” Hazard, a resident of EastView at Middlebury, said of pickleball. “I used to play tennis, and (pickleball) gives you that same kind of movement.”
Since the pickleball court is smaller than a tennis court, it is more forgiving to seniors who can’t cover real estate as quickly as they used to. And the drop-in games almost always involve doubles competition, which further reins in the amount of court players have to cover.
Hazard epitomizes the definition of “active senior.” She also practices tai chi and yoga and she walks.
“But there’s nothing like this,” Hazard said of pickleball. “I’m very happy this is here.”
Maggie Pegg Hails from Holden Beach, N.C. She was visiting the Middlebury area during the holidays, and was pleased to learn she could get her daily dose of pickleball at the local rec facility.
“It’s so much fun,” Pegg said. “Everybody is really nice and we have a great time. You get a lot of exercise.”
She called the sport “very addictive,” noting she plays almost every day.
Pickleball is already well established in Holden Beach, according to Pegg.
“My whole neighborhood plays,” she said, citing an age range of 40 to 70. “Pickleball actually healed our neighborhood. It was very fractured, and now everyone plays together.”