It’s not the same as March Madness by any means, but a sport with a funny name is gaining new fans in south-central Kansas.
It’s called Pickleball, and it’s growing as recreation centers and city parks add new courts.
New players are also beginning to discover the health benefits that come with playing. KMUW’s Deborah Shaar reports.
Inside the Downtown Senior Center in Wichita, Hank Blase couldn’t get to the ball fast enough during this rally on the indoor pickleball court. But that doesn’t happen often. Blase is a pickleball champion in Kansas.
Seeing him run to the net and slam the ball toward his opponents, you’d never know he had a heart problem that even included suffering a couple of strokes two years ago.
At 70 years old, Blase credits pickleball for getting him in shape…and saving his life.
"When I got back to my cardiologist, I had lost 25 pounds," Blase says. "All my numbers looked good, and he said, 'What are doing?' And I said, 'I’m playing pickleball.' He said, 'What’s that?' I explained it to him, and he said 'Keep it up!' So I kept it up and really feel good by doing it, and my condition is so much better."
Like a lot of pickleball players, Blase had never heard of the sport, but once he tried it, he was hooked.
Pickleball is a low-impact paddle game. It's part tennis, part badminton, and part ping-pong.
Played on a smaller court than tennis, Pickleball uses a lighter, plastic ball with holes, much like a wiffleball.
"The thing about pickleball is that it’s fun," Blase says. "You can have fun while you exercise. [It's] so much better than just walking on a treadmill, which is boring. Here you get a lot of fun, you meet a lot of good people, and it’s enjoyable. You keep coming back."
Pickleball is easy to learn, but it can be a fast-paced and intensely competitive game once you get a little experience.
There are 400,000 players nationwide. State, regional and national pickleball tournaments are scheduled each year for all ages.
Scott Moore started playing four years ago and quickly reached the top player rating of 5.0.
"I basically started playing competitively about a year and a half ago," Moore says. "The first tournament I won a silver and the have won six golds and a couple more silvers in the last year. I tell people I never dreamed I’d be a national champion at anything and even though it’s a small pond, it’s nice to be a big fish."
Moore is 53-years old and describes himself as a lifelong racket-sport fanatic.
He says it took a friend’s urging to get him to try pickleball. Now, he’s a professional.
I have long arms and quick reflexes and have trained really hard," Moore says. "(I've) lost 20 pounds so I’m fast now. It’s been the perfect fit for me as far as a game that I was made for. I’m a lean, mean pickleball machine!"
Moore is from Colorado Springs. He travels around the country conducting pickleball clinics like the one he did recently at Wichita’s Downtown Senior Center.
"Watching the holes in the ball is my little trick to make sure I’m watching the ball when it hits the paddle," Moore says. "And keeping your head down. Just like golf or anything else, you’ve got to keep your head down. If you look up, you’re going to miss hit."
Because pickleball is easy on the knees and joints and is not as strenuous as other racket sports, it attracts older players.
Moore thinks the sport will really take off when pickleball is offered in schools and at more city facilities.
"It’s still predominately a senior game," Moore says. "I would say 80-90 percent playing are over 50. But more and more, the younger people are picking it up and seeing that it is very, very competitive, especially if you play singles. You can get a phenomenal workout. So it’s not just an old guys game anymore—it’s going mainstream."
Hank Blase, Wichita’s unofficial pickleball ambassador, qualified to represent the state at the National Senior Games in July and thought that this might be his year. That was until life got in the way.
"Two years ago in ’13, I qualified in singles and doubles, Blase says. "But then I had my strokes, and my doubles partner had five bypasses, so we didn’t go. This year, my doubles partner has a cruise at that same time, so unless I find another partner, I’m not going again. That keeps me coming back we’ll try again next year."
Blase plays pickleball for three hours-a-day, three days a week at the Downtown Senior Center.
With that training and his competitive tournament experience, there’s a good chance he may get another shot at the national tournament.
"Our oldest player was 91 when he quit. So I hope to beat his record," Blase says.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of pickleball.
The U.S.A. Pickleball Association says a former congressman and two other dads created the game, but there are differing accounts of how they came up with the name.
Clearly no pickles are used, and the most repeated version of history is that the game was named after the family dog “Pickles” who loved to chase the ball.
The 2015 Heartland Golden Games Pickleball Tournament is Saturday, May 2nd at the Downtown Senior Center. Check in is at 8:30am. $30 at the door.
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