It’s so popular because it’s so much fun.
Cathy Taruskin lived her entire life without ever really being an athlete. She also has a heart condition.
But when her brother handed her a pickleball paddle a few years back, the now 67-year-old El Cerrito resident gave the funny-sounding sport a try.
“It was so much fun,” she said. “You just laugh so much.”
Now, Taruskin plays seven days a week at pickleball courts throughout the East Bay and is an official ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association. She’s also a vocal advocate to get cities to create dedicated pickleball courts, so that players don’t have to share with tennis. She and dozens of other passionate pickeball players recently persuaded the Berkeley Parks and Waterfront Commission to turn an unused tennis court at Cedar Rose Park into four pickleball courts.
Despite the silliness of its name (more on that later), pickleball is growing at exponential speeds. It’s had a 650 percent increase over the last six years, according to the USA Pickleball Association. In 2018, there were 3.1 million pickleball players and nearly 7,000 places to play in the United States, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. About 85 new pickleball courts open up each month, according to the same data. In the East Bay, pickleball courts can be found from Concord to Albany, and most are either free to play on or cost less than $5 a game.
Pickleball can be attractive for all ages, but seniors are taking to it with special fervor.
“You don’t have to do a lot of running,” Taruskin said. “It doesn’t favor power but strategy.”
She said she was also very interested in getting her health back to normal after her open heart surgery, and pickleball was the answer for her. The sport is also the answer for many others, too. This spring, chiropractor Nicky Silver, 70, told the Berkeley rec commission in a letter that the sport keeps her joints active and is weight-bearing for osteoporosis. Lisa Friedman, a retired tennis teacher who had two shoulder replacement surgeries, wrote that “pickleball is a miracle for me in body and spirit.”
For the uninitiated, pickleball is a mix of tennis, racquetball, and Ping-Pong. Players use special paddles and typically play on tennis courts with specific pickleball lines. Nets and court sizes are smaller than their tennis counterparts, and the most common game is doubles. Pickleball has its own set of rules, lingo and culture. For example, players should stay out of the “kitchen” — and people shout congratulatory things such as “good shot” and “good get” to each other. While there isn’t that much running, players do need an ample amount of hand-eye coordination.
Pickleball was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, Washington. Three dads — Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum — whose kids were bored with their usual summertime activities — are credited for creating game, according to the story told on the USA Pickleball Association website. As for the name? Theories abound. One of those tales is that Pritchard’s wife, Joan, started calling the game pickleball because the combination of different sports reminded her of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. But according to McCallum, the game was officially named after the Pritchards’ Cocker Spaniel, Pickles, who would chase the ball and run off with it.
Perhaps it’s the lighthearted name that makes the sport so much fun — likely the biggest draw for its fans.
“As you get older, you think, ‘I’ve made all the friends I’m going to make,” Taruskin said. “But then you’re in these pickleball lines, talking to strangers, who become friends. My whole social circle has changed in the last six years.” She said she’s met the most interesting new people, from a tugboat engineer to a college president. Most of her pickleball peers are retired, but she’s even played with teens.
The camaraderie is also what Stacy Margolin, 60, of Oakland likes most about the sport her brother introduced to her about a year ago. As a longtime tennis player, pickleball came pretty naturally to her. And now she plays as often as she can, often at courts in Alameda or Piedmont. She said she also likes playing at Bushrod Park in Oakland, where the atmosphere is very diverse and friendly.
“Some people are really serious,” she said. “But most people are just there to have a good time.”
To find a pickleball court near you, visit Places2play.org. There is a Bay Area Pickleball Alliance at meetup.com, and you can also visit an East Bay Pickleball Facebook page, Facebook.com/pickleballeastbay.
This article originally appeared in our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.