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Amy Kirchner teaches pickleballA couple of times a week, a group of dedicated sports enthusiasts meet at Carysbrook gym, using hard paddles to bat a polymer whiffle ball back and forth. It looks like tennis but the lines on the court are different. The net is similar to a tennis net but is mounted two inches lower. It’s not badminton and the equipment is nothing like most have encountered. Not many are familiar with this sport and when it’s mentioned, they’ll cock their heads and ask, “What’s pickleball?”

It is the latest sports craze you never heard of but is all the rage with the 50-plus crowd. Any age and skill level can play.  According to the USA Pickleball Association, pickleball is still the fastest growing sport in popularity. The Sports and Fitness Association estimates that it grew to 2.46 million players in 2015.

This is a racquet sport that combines all the elements of tennis, paddle tennis, ping-pong, and badminton. The sport is played on a court with the same dimensions as a doubles badminton court and the rules are simple.

Jason Smith, former director of Fluvanna County Parks and Recreation, along with Margie Davenport of Charlottesville, a pickleball ambassador, introduced the game to Fluvannians about five years ago. Since its inception in Fluvanna, its popularity is still on the rise.

Some wonder where the strange name pickleball came from. It was invented in 1965 at the home of Congressman Joel Pritchard, U.S. representative for Washington state, according to Stateline Pickleball Club’s website.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and the families of Pritchard and two of his friends were bored. It was suggested they play badminton, but no one could find the shuttlecock. They improvised with a whiffle ball, lowered the badminton net, and fabricated paddles of plywood from a nearby shed, according to the website.

The name is often said to have been the name of the family dog, Pickles. The story that has been passed around and accepted as gospel was that the whiffle ball belonged to the dog. Whenever a bad shot happened, Pickles would run and try to get the ball and hide it. So they named the game “Pickles’ ball.” But that wasn’t the real story, according to the website.
 In actuality it came from Pritchard’s wife and it wasn’t because the ball sort of looked like a pickle either. The bizarre name reminded Joan Pritchard of a pickle boat crew in rowing, where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. Joan Pritchard set the record straight in interviews but the stories still continued. In reality, the Pritchard family didn’t get the cocker spaniel until two years after, and the dog was named after the sport, according to the website.

Today, pickleball is an organized sport represented by national and international governing bodies, according to the website. Pickleball has spread across the United States and into Canada and around the world. The pickleball capital of the world is central Florida.

“Although pickleball appears to be very similar to tennis, there are key differences that make pickleball more accessible to a wider range of players, particularly children and seniors. Chief among these differences is the speed of the pickleball ball which typically moves at one-third of the average speed of a tennis ball. Equally important, however, is the size of the court which is just under one-third of the total area of a tennis court,” according the website. This means less running and less risk of injury for players. “This smaller area combined with the slower moving ball makes pickleball much easier to play than tennis,” according to the website.

“Pickleball is a fun, easy-to-learn racket sport. It’s easier on the joints, so pickleball attracts many ex-tennis or racquetball players that used to play tennis or badminton as a kid.  It can be played indoors or outdoors,” said Amy Kirchner, the current USA Pickleball Association Ambassador and organizer in Fluvanna. Kirchner is now working with Aaron Spitzer of Fluvanna County Parks and Recreation. “What I like about the game is that anyone can play,” she said. “You don’t need a partner, and equipment is provided by parks and recreation.” Comfortable clothing and sneakers is all that is required.

Pickleball is played with wooden or composite paddles that are slightly bigger than a ping pong paddle, and a whiffle ball.  Players start by “dinking,” or warming up before the game.
“Some players like to take it easy, and some get quite competitive. What usually happens is that when one game is finished, everyone splits up and plays with someone else.  Beginners tend to play earlier in the time slots, with more advanced players hanging around to play longer,” said Kirchner. “There are also tournaments not only here in Central Virginia, but across the country, for those really interested in playing more advanced games.”

Lake Monticello had the foresight to add pickleball courts to its tennis courts, seeing the popularity of the sport grow in the county. Peggy Shanklin, who helped Kirchner organize the Lake Monticello group, plays often.

“I love that the game is simple. That I, the one who was always picked last, can play and get better and better,” said Shanklin, who clearly has fun when she’s on the court. “I like that the costs are low. You would have to try very hard to spend a lot of money. Mostly, I love my fellow pickleballers. They are so much fun. They encourage you, coach you, and laugh with you.”

“Just show up, get free instruction and give it a try.  You’ll be hooked,” said Kirchner. “It’s fun and social and a great way to meet new people.  We have people of all ages, male or female. The ages range from 30 to 80 and once in a while, a child shows up with a parent.” 

For more information, email Kirchner at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .