IOWA CITY — One day, after swimming laps at the North Dodge Athletic Club, retired professor James Broffitt wandered into the gym and saw people playing a lively game with squarish paddles, a Wiffle ball and a slightly-lower tennis net.
The sport was pickleball and six year later, Broffitt still is hooked.
“I haven’t gone to swim laps since,” said the 78-year-old from Iowa City.
Pickleball has become one of the fastest-growing sports in America, due, in part, to baby boomers seeking lower-impact ways to stay fit and competitive. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association estimates nearly 3 million Americans play pickleball. Pickleball Johnson County has seen local participation numbers more than triple from 2014 to 2019.
Iowa City spent $134,000 in 2017 on a project that included converting three tennis courts at Mercer Park on Iowa City’s east side into eight pickleball courts. The city’s indoor pickleball courts at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center in downtown Iowa City see steady use on weekdays.
“If you look at our gym any morning in winter months, it’s filled with players,” said Juli Seydell Johnson, Iowa City Parks and Recreation director. “It’s a really nice way to see a group of adults being active and social and pursuing a sport they love.”
What is Pickleball?
Pickleball was born in 1965 the way many sports originate — out of boredom.
Joel Pritchard, a U.S. congressman from Washington state, and his golf buddy, Bill Bell, returned to Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island to find their families sitting around with nothing to do, according to the USA Pickleball Association.
They devised a game on a badminton court with Ping-Pong paddles and a Wiffle ball, ultimately lowering the net to make it easier to volley.
“They made the rules to make it fun for a family,” said Duane Miller, 81, of North Liberty.
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Miller was an avid tennis player for much of his life, but injuries sidelined him from sports for 25 years until he started playing pickleball in 2009.
“In tennis, the serve is 50 percent of the game,” Miller said. “If you have a big serve, you can win half the points. They made the pickleball serve so you have to serve underhand so you can’t overpower the opponent.”
Pickleball also has a 7-foot no-volley zone called the kitchen that makes it so players can’t smash the ball from close range. And since the game is played on a smaller court, people with less mobility can still enjoy a great game.
“Someone who is older can be competitive with someone who is younger,” Broffitt said.
The sport’s unusual name may have been inspired by the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, or may have come from Joan Pritchard, who said the combination of different sports reminded her of the pickle boat in crew, where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers from other boats, the USA Pickleball Association reports.
Myra Clark, 63, of Coralville, gives free pickleball lessons at the rec center and at the North Dodge Athletic Club, loaning paddles and providing instruction to newbies. On a recent morning, she guided a Gazette reporter and three others through the rules, some basic moves and two games to 11.
“I love to play,” Clark said. “I’m the loudest one out there, laughing and calling out.”
“Trash talking,” Broffitt added, teasing Clark.
Finding places to play
Pickleball of Johnson County has about 330 members with participation this year through Dec. 10 of nearly 16,000 individual sign-ups for games through an online scheduling system. This is up from 4,600 sign-ups in 2014. Johnson County has indoor public courts at rec centers in Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty and at the community center in Solon.
John Peters is among Cedar Rapids residents trying to expand pickleball on the north end of the Corridor.
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“I’ve been trying to reach out to local city leaders to address this sport that seems to be growing at a rapid pace,” said Peters, 54. “We’ve got tennis courts here in Cedar Rapids, which are, in my opinion, being underutilized. They could be fixed to be pickleball courts.”
Peters travels to pickleball tournaments across the state and said Cedar Rapids could draw similar tournaments — and tourism revenue — if it had more courts.
Cedar Rapids has four indoor pickleball courts at the Northwest Recreation Center. Pickleball lines are painted on the tennis courts at Noelridge Park, but the tennis nets do not lower to the standard 36-inch pickleball height, said Gail Loskill, Parks and Recreation spokeswoman.
“We aren’t opposed to adding more in the future, but it isn’t in our current budget,” Loskill said.
People who are interested in trying out pickleball may contact Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about places to play pickleball, go to the USA Pickleball Association website.
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