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Pickleball’s progressing popularity permeates Peoria-area parks

A group of pickleball players participate in an open play session last week at the tennis courts near Charter Oak Primary School in Peoria.
Joe Deacon
A group of pickleball players participate in an open play session last week at the tennis courts near Charter Oak Primary School in Peoria.

More and more people in the Peoria area are picking up a new recreational activity: Pickleball. And it's not just older folks.

Austin Boltz is among a group of pickleball players gathered on a sunny Thursday afternoon at the tennis courts near Charter Oak Primary School in Peoria. A 26-year-old transplant from Oregon, Boltz said he never expected to get drawn into the sport.

“I remember about two weeks before I started playing, my coworker — she's maybe about 50s, I would say — she made the comment about playing pickleball, and I was like, ‘Oh, it's totally an old person sport. You know, just the retirees getting out there and moving around,’” said Boltz. “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 workout and good, fun time.”

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

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

Kelly Eckert also is among the participants in this open session at Charter Oak, and a major advocate for pickleball in the Peoria area. She said Boltz and other players around his age are helping drive the sport's surge in popularity.

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

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

“It pulls me in because I love to socialize and play,” she said. “I’ve met some fantastic people; we have a good time, we laugh, we enjoy each other. It just makes you want to come out and get better.

“You improve every time you play. My big thing is I tell people, ‘The more you play, the better you're going to be.’ So a lot of times, that's the biggest thing: you just have to get out here and just keep with it.”

Eckert is a member of the Peoria Area Pickleball Info group on Facebook that boasts more than 1,000 members. Mike Mitchell is one of the group's administrators and acts as a local ambassador for the sport.

Mitchell said he's definitely seeing interest in pickleball surging all across the area, from larger communities like Peoria and Pekin to smaller towns like Dunlap and Washburn.

“What I have seen, and I mean the statistics prove it out, is that a lot of the communities around here have been putting pickleball in, converting a lot of the tennis courts into pickleball,” said Mitchell. “I think the main reason is it's fun; two is, 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 increasing popularity also is apparent through the number of people attending clinics he holds in various communities.

“With the park district, about two or three times a year we'll put on a beginner's clinic. In fact, to show you the growth of it, last year, we did like three clinics,” he said. “The first (clinic) I think we had 60-some people; the second clinic was I think 50-some, and last one was like 40-some people. So that's a lot of interest in this area.”

Peoria Park District executive director Emily Cahill said they're taking steps to accommodate the region's growing number of pickleball players.

“What we're hearing is that this is being picked up by people of all ages, and so thinking about those evening hours and access for people who are still working that 9-to-5, or whatever it might be — that's one of our challenges, is figuring out how to balance all those different demands and still support the 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 some evening hours where we can, and we hope to be able to find that balance based upon what the demand is locally and how we can support it.”

With the colder weather months approaching, Cahill said they also will have indoor pickleball courts available at places like Owens Center and the RiverPlex, adding she's thrilled at seeing park district facilities packed with pickleball players.

“Oh, it's fantastic. I love to go to Glen Oak Park in the mornings and drive past and you hear this ‘plink, plink, plink’ of the of the pickleball,” said Cahill. “There are folks waiting in line to play, and they're having a great time. So, it's so good to see people out in the space and really using our parks.

“Then a lot of times you'll see them after they play, they're hanging out at picnic tables or walking in the park and just enjoying 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 the interest is growing.

“I realized you don't have to be an athlete to do this sport. You don't have to have a background in racquetball or tennis or ping pong; you can be any age and any level and just get out there and have a good time and learn,” said Eckert.

“We kind of have it split up a little bit in Peoria, where we have those people that are more advanced that want to play advanced players. The other group is called the ‘Fun, Fit and Friends’ pickleball group, which I kind of started separately. That's for people that have never played, want to learn how to play and they are not intimidated to come out and try.

“I think that was the biggest thing I found, is people were scared to come out and try it because they didn't want to be embarrassed. So we are very welcoming. We let them try it, we give them paddles, and if they like it great. But if not, it's OK, too. I feel like they realize once they don't feel intimidated anymore, then they get out here and say, ‘I can do it. Everybody's doing it.’”

Mitchell said he first became acquainted with pickleball when he was working at the prison in Galesburg.

“Some staff members, they'd take their lunch break and they would play pickleball. I'd watch them and I'm like, ‘Well, I play tennis. I'm playing with a real ball and a real racket.’ And, they had their groups together, so for several years I'd see them play and never did play,” said Mitchell.

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

Mitchell said start-up equipment costs are fairly reasonable, with paddles available online for around $40-$60.

“Then you maybe get some balls, which might be in the range of three for $10, so you can get into it for less than $70,” said Mitchell. “And those paddles last a long time, while the balls may or may not, and if you go to an indoor facility, generally wooden paddles will be provided. Generally our indoor sessions are running between maybe $4-$5 for a couple hours a player; outdoors is free.”

Cahill said pickleball’s speedy growth is relatively unusual.

“Before my time, I would tell you that tennis probably did that. Golf grew when Tiger Woods was at his peak. This kind of start, though, for a sport that's new is unique, and so we are trying to catch up — I think a lot of folks are, right?— to the get supply and demand to meet each other,” she said.

“But I think at the park district, we are committing our resources in a really thoughtful way in order to support that, because it is one of those things that it is growing really fast now — but like some of those other sports, what happens long term? So trying to balance sustainability with current demand is something that we talk about every day in the park district.”

Cahill hopes the park district can build up enough good players to begin supporting tournaments. Boltz said he's sure pickleball's popularity will continue to increase.

“Oh, 100%. I just saw the other day LeBron James just (announced) a sponsorship for a pickleball league coming up,” said Boltz. “It's definitely growing and getting bigger. I know that there was a tournament in St. Louis and I think there was one up in Chicago this year. So I think it's a truly growing sport.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.