Pursuits of Happiness: Pickleball

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Patty Durcholz of St. Henry plays pickleball at the Tri-County YMCA in Ferdinand on Nov. 11. The sport has grown in popularity at the Y and people meet twice a week to play.

Editor's Note: This is one in a series of stories exploring people’s pastimes and the joys the hobbies bring.


FERDINAND — It’s approximately 7:30 a.m. on a chilly December Tuesday. The sun is just peeking over the horizon, but Mike Hemingway is bright and early at the Tri-County YMCA, setting up nets in the gym.

No, he doesn’t have volleyball or badminton nets. Hemingway and a host of others are getting ready to play pickleball, one of, if not the fastest growing sports in America. The sport has been going strong at the Y for three years. Hemingway, who has Parkinson’s disease, has reaped the benefits of it since he began playing in August.

“It continues to help me with my balance and coordination,” he said.

Hemingway plays the sport twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Pickleball play can last from around 7:30 a.m. until 10 a.m. on those days. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays host the sport after 9:30 a.m. Pickleball at the Y attracts other players who are more seasoned, such as Marge Hevron, who has been playing for three years. She estimates there are 16 who play on a regular basis. She said a friend, Jill Schnitker, moved from Robinson, Illinois, and taught some local residents how to play.

The pickleball patrons agreed the game is fun, but matches are very competitive.

Eric Wirthwein of Ferdinand hits the ball during a game of pickleball at the Tri-County YMCA in Ferdinand on Dec. 17.

“We really slam it,” said Joan Lubbers, a player on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “I just like the sport. I always liked to compete, and it’s a good way to get exercise.”

The game mixes elements of tennis, badminton and ping pong. Players use a paddle to connect with a plastic ball in the hopes of getting it over the net. Games are played to 11 points, and the victor(s) must win by two. Matches can be played either in singles or doubles. Serves are underhand, and for the most part, players cannot enter the kitchen. The kitchen is an area in front of the net where volleys are prohibited. The one exception is that a player may play a ball if it lands in the kitchen from the other side. Shots must be returned on a single bounce.

“It’s good exercise,” Marge said. “It keeps my flexibility going. It’s good camaraderie. Some of the people I’ve become really good friends with since I’ve met them. It’s just something fun to do.”

She always sees people playing the sport when she travels with her husband, David.

The Hevrons also don’t confine their playing to Ferdinand. They play pickleball in Evansville and Kentucky, too.

David is into the spirit of the game. That December Tuesday, he sported a gray floppy hat that reads, “Just Dink It,” a play off of the famous Nike slogan “Just Do It,” with a plastic ball depicted on the hat. Pickleballmax.com defines a dink as a strategy often used in doubles that is intended to put the ball at the feet of the opponent or in the kitchen.

The sport gives David something to get up early for. He drinks his cup of coffee and cannot wait to get to the Y. He credits Marge for getting him into the sport.

“My wife did it first,” he said. “She said, ‘David, you’ll like it. You got to go.’ So, I’ve been doing it ever since.”

He thinks the game is on the rise because of the availability to play it. He loves the friendship of the game, but also the competition it brings for a competitive person like himself.

The sport often appeals to members of elder generations who are now retired. Marge, for example, is in her 70s. Pickleball, though, can be for people of all ages.

Eric Wirthwein is a 2003 Southridge graduate who just turned 35. He grew up playing tennis. Any sport with a racket seemed natural to him, and it didn’t take long for him to adjust to pickleball.

“It was pretty quick,” he said. “It’s not too different from tennis and ping pong. So, it’s not too bad.”

He’s been playing the sport for about two years. Having to volley right away is one distinction he noticed between pickleball and tennis.

Becky Buening of Huntingburg keeps her eyes on the ball during a game of pickleball at the Tri-County YMCA in Ferdinand on Dec. 17. Buening was recruited to play by friends about three months ago. "It's a crazy game, you get addicted to it," she said.

Pickleball is also being taught in schools. Abe Schwartz is a former employee at the YMCA and has been a teacher at Perry Central since August. He introduced the sport to his students in his physical education classes.

He said it’s not too hard to teach pickleball once somebody understands the basics of tennis, but it would be challenging for kids who didn’t know about tennis.

Tri-County YMCA Executive Director Mike Steffe said the Y introduced the sport after a group that played outside wanted to partake of the game indoors during the winter.

“We looked into it, purchased a net, taped some lines on the floor and kind of started from there,” Steffe said. “It’s kind of been on the rise ever since.”

He didn’t know anything about the sport that was first played in Washington State in 1965. He went along with the idea because of how fun it seemed, and the exercise that it provided. Pickleball isn’t too costly for the Y, and while it does take up some gym space, it doesn’t consume a lot of its other resources. Members can play the sport for free. Non-members may play for $5.

“It’s been a good fit for us,” Steffe said.

Steffe said the Y has done different things to enhance the experience of its pickleball players, such as purchasing extra nets and getting specific times for the members to play. The Y is seeking to expand, and pickleball is part of that expansion.

“We’re looking at adding another 11,000 square feet to our building,” Steffe said. “Roughly half of that will be a new wellness center, which encompasses our treadmills, weights, places for people to work out, and then the other four-to-five-thousand square feet of that will be a smaller gym — smaller than the one we currently have, but yet big enough to incorporate a volleyball court or a couple of pickleball courts or whatever we need to do.”

“I think it’s great,” pickleball player Mary Kay Berger said of the expansion. “I love it. The more, the better, and then more people will get involved. We need more courts so more people can get involved.”


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