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Pickleball – odd name, popular sport

March 3, 2017 GMT

For a sport named after a cocker spaniel, you wouldn’t expect Pickleball to be one of the fast-growing competitions in the country.

Jim Lemberger of Wever and his doubles partner Linda Ross, also of Wever, competed in the Pickleball event last weekend in the Winter Iowa Senior Games (held on courts in Rock Island, Ill.). In singles, Lemberger won gold, and Ross took home a bronze for third.

Lemberger qualified in singles for the National Senior Game this June in Birmingham, Ala.

Lemberger spoke at the Fort Madison Lions Club this past Tuesday at The Parthenon Pizza and Steakhouse, and Lions Club president Larry Holtkamp also competed at the Senior Games.

Lemberger will also go to the National State Games in August. He won a bronze at last year’s Iowa Games to advance.

Like tennis and ping pong

Lemberger said that Pickleball has been called, “Big boys’ ping pong.”

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Pickleball resembles the speed and equipment of ping pong but on a larger scale, yet not quite as big as a tennis court.

The ball itself looks like a whiffle ball, but you wouldn’t want to get smacked in the face with it from a slam by your opponent (the top players can hit it up to 60 miles an hour.

The badminton-sized court – 20 feet by 44 feet – is its biggest appeal, to senior citizens especially, because you’re not chasing all over a tennis court to make a return.

Lemberger said that’s where it took off as a big time sport, and it’s popular in Florida with its many retirees. But snowbirds likely brought the game back north and in the Midwest. The pickleball club in Rock Island, Ill., has about 450 members.

Game invented around 1970

As for the unusual name: Back around 1970, a couple in Washington state needed a diversion while on a family trip and created the new sport.

They played it on the street or on a flat driveway. But the family cocker spaniel kept chasing the loose balls. The dog’s name, as you have probably already guessed, was Pickles.

The game spread when athletes getting on in years saw they could stay competitive without the wear and tear on their knees. In doubles, the court space needed to be covered is only 10 feet.

Nonetheless, “You’ve got to be quick,” Lemberger said, “and you need good hand-eye coordination.”

But Ross said that the more you play it, the better that coordination gets.

Indoors, outdoors

Fort Madison has both an indoor court and an outdoor court. You can play at the Fort Madison YMCA in the gym from 8:30-11:30 a.m., Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Victory Park’s tennis courts have the separate lines needed for pickleball.

YMCA director Ryan Wilson said the Y purchased the portable net and racquets about a year ago.

“It had taken off in the area,” Wilson said. He heard that the Horner YMCA in Keokuk and the Burlington YMCA had it. “They had good response, so we decided to purchase the equipment and get it going here.”

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Wilson likes to play the sport. “It’s something different; not your traditional sport. It’s fun.”

Lemberger said the plan is to bring the sport to Riverview Park for Riverfest, giving people a chance to try it out.

More rules

Scoring is like old-fashioned volleyball – you have to serve to win – but games only go to 11. Serving is underhanded, and the first serve and first return have to hit the ground.

The first seven feet on either side of the net is the “kitchen,” and you can’t attack the ball from that area without letting it bounce first.

Lemberger said for the better players that’s where the action is, with both sides “dinking” – short hits – until someone takes advantage of a ball hit too high and slams it past the opponent(s).

As with disc golf, there are inexpensive racquets for the occasional player and more expensive – around $100 – for the hard-core enthusiast.