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The City Journals

Pickleball craze comes to West Valley City's Centennial Park

Nov 05, 2019 04:53PM ● By Darrell Kirby

Recently installed pickleball courts at Centennial Park attract players not only from West Valley City but also surrounding communities. (Darrell Kirby/City Journals)

By Darrell Kirby | [email protected]

It's part tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It's also the latest rage in sports and recreation. 

Pickleball is considered one of the fastest growing sports in America and a dedicated legion of players in West Valley City is swept up in its popularity. 

On a mild Tuesday morning in October, several of the newly converted pickleball courts at Centennial Park were occupied by men and women wearing everything from jeans to workout clothes. The table tennis-like sound of the ball being hit from one side of the courts to the other filled the air as players alternately laughed and engaged in some good-natured trash talk with their opponents on the other side of the net. 

"Oh man, we're so happy," said Ed Vehikite of West Valley City as he sat under a tree watching friends and acquaintances battle it out on one of 12 courts that used to be underutilized tennis courts at the park. They were changed to pickleball courts in early summer, to the delight of Vehikite, who took up the game about 10 months ago. "It's kind of nice socially. Everyone is able to come together to play and take time away from daily life." 

That includes spending time with his wife, Rosella, who converted to pickleball a little before Ed. "We're so happy they opened these courts," she said. Rosella likes the fact that at 20-feet wide by 44-feet long, the pickleball courts are smaller than regular-size tennis courts, thereby reducing the physical pounding. "You don't run as much as you do in tennis," she said. "But you still get your workout in. We're all sweaty." 

The popularity of pickleball on the Centennial Park courts pleases Jamie Young, director of the nearby West Valley City Family Fitness Center, which houses an indoor court. "It really is an up-and-coming thing," she said. "It is well-received." Young said there are regularly 30 to 40 people playing on the outdoor courts during most times of the day. Four pickleball courts can fit in the space of one tennis court, to accommodate more players. 

The excitement for pickleball in West Valley has contributed to what Drew Wathey, director of media relations for the USA Pickleball Association, called the "meteoric" growth of the sport in Utah. 

"Utah is definitely one of the top five states" for growth along with Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, he said. USAPA is the national governing body of the sport with a stated mission "to promote the development and growth of pickleball in the United States and its territories."

While there are no precise state-by-state numbers of participants, Wathey said about 3.1 million people nationwide play pickleball at some 6,900 known locations and both figures are increasing rapidly. "It is a sport that lends itself to the masses," he said, noting that young and old alike can and do play it. There are tournaments and competitions and some players play to win, but most participate “largely for fun," Wathey added. 


 

Wathey said pickleball is a sport that men and women can play equally without one gender having an advantage over the other, such as men being able to hit the ball harder and faster. 

That is mostly due to the game being played with what is essentially a plastic Wiffle ball about the size of a tennis ball. Players come up to the ball to hit it with their paddles rather than wait for the ball to bounce to them, because it doesn't have much bounce. Participants can also volley the ball back and forth without it hitting the ground, much like badminton. More advanced players can also make the ball do tricky things. "You can slice it and put a little English on it (giving the ball a curve in the air)," Wathey said. 

Like tennis, only the individual or team (for doubles matches) that serves can score points. The first to score 11 with a winning margin of at least two points is the victor. 

The financial investment in pickleball equipment can vary depending on how seriously players take the game. A decent wood paddle for beginners can be $15 or $20, while higher-quality composite paddles can run $150 or more. “It is not a cheap sport to play, but it is less expensive than golf or tennis,” Wathey said. 

Pickleball was created in 1965 by Congressman Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum on Bainbridge Island, Washington. The story goes that their kids were bored during their summertime visit to the island, so the dads gathered some old ping-pong paddles, a Wiffle ball, a badminton set and the hybrid sport was born. 

There are two debatable versions of how pickleball got its name. One is that the Pritchards had a dog named Pickles that kept chasing and running off with the ball during games. The other is that Joel Pritchard's wife, a competitive rower, coined the name because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”

Back at Centennial Park, Maia Lavatai of Salt Lake City comes to West Valley to play pickleball because "we love these new courts. Salt Lake City really needs to step up their game." 

She is one of many players who come to Centennial Park from surrounding communities that have fewer or inferior courts.

Along with other players, Lavatai had one suggestion to make the West Valley pickleball experience even better: "Maybe the city can put up some lights. We'd be here morning and night. That's how much we love pickleball."