Originally Published: August 18, 2015 6:02 a.m.
Smacking a perforated plastic ball with an oversized ping pong paddle clearly delights Ellie Trantham.
Sporting a white "Prescott Arizona is a Kick" T-shirt with blue, green, and purple boots, pink spurs, and assorted polka-dots and stars, Trantham hits a winning shot on Court 5 at the Club at Prescott Lakes during her first match in the Prescott Senior Olympics pickleball tournament this past week.
She flashes an engaging smile, bellows a jubilant yell, and slaps paddles with her doubles partner, Erene Waymeyer, who's wearing a sleeveless blue Prescott Lakes Pickleball Club shirt with the logo on the back of iDink Wear, which manufactures apparel specifically for this fastest-growing sport in America that combines elements of badminton, tennis, and ping pong.
Later in the set, Trantham hits a winner, turns to the spectators with an impish grin, and "shoots" her fingers that she's formed in the shape of a pistol.
"It's a good thing she keeps her emotions inside," jokes someone in the crowd, which has gathered along the side and back of the court.
"You don't know the half of it," laughs her husband Jim, who rubs her back during breaks.
Watching Trantham move on the court, you'd never guess that she was born during the Great Depression.
She's ridden horses in barrel races, she's a certified diver, she bowls at Antelope Lanes, she's played in national tennis tournaments, and, at 78, she's the oldest player in the women's pickleball tournament. Plus, she's competing in the 60-69 age group.
The fact that Trantham, even with a left knee replacement, can hold her own against younger opponents and have a great time, win or lose, best explains the surging popularity of pickleball.
"People have found that they can do this at any age and have a lot of fun," says Jay Davis, president of the Prescott Lakes Pickleball Club. "It's a very social game. Plus, it's easier on their elbows, knees, and backs than other sports.
"When you watch pickleball, it doesn't look that hard. But when you play it, you know you've had a workout."
That's why Jim Green, 77, took up the sport a year-and-a-half ago. The former corn and soybean farmer from Iowa has had two heart attacks, five bypasses, and five stents inserted in his coronary arteries.
Five days a week he walks to the courts from his home in Prescott Lakes to play pickleball with his younger neighbor Robert Rutty. Green sometimes confuses opponents with his ambidexterity. A left-hander, he quickly switches his paddle to his right hand to hit forehands instead of left-handed backhands.
"I switch so fast they don't see it," Green says. "When I go for a check-up with my doctor and my blood pressure and cholesterol are down, he always tells me, 'Keep playing pickleball!'"
Green's doctor doesn't have to worry about his patient loafing. Ask any pickleball player. Not only is the sport good for your health, it's addictive. And not just for senior citizens.
The USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) in Glendale estimates that there are 400,000 players of all ages worldwide. Not bad for a sport that was created exactly 50 years ago when three guys improvised a game to give their bored kids something to do on a drizzly day at Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle.
Joel Pritchard, a future U.S. congressman, and his friends Barney McCallum and Bill Bell couldn't locate a full set of racquets for a game of badminton. So they found a softball-sized ball, put up the net, and used ping pong paddles.
The sport of pickleball was born.
Soon after, Pritchard and his buddies created rules, never losing sight of their purpose to create an activity their entire families could enjoy together. That's why there's lines seven feet from the tennis-style net on each side of the court, forming an area called "the kitchen." Players are not allowed to step foot in there, preventing someone the size of LeBron James from overpowering ladies like Trantham and Waymeyer, 68, with volleys (hitting the ball before it has bounced). They also created the double bounce requirement. Each side has to hit one groundstroke prior to volleying. And all serves are underhand without a bounce.
The founding fathers' rules from a half century ago remain largely intact today. The initial wood paddles that McCallum fashioned in his home now are a standard size (8 inches wide by 15.75 inches long) usually made of lightweight composite material. The plastic "Whiffle" ball is about three inches in diameter, and the 20-by-44 foot court is slightly more than half the size of a tennis court (36-by-78).
In 1967, Pritchard's neighbor Bob O'Brian built the first permanent pickleball court in his backyard. In 2003, there were only 150 known pickleball courts in North America. Now there are more than 4,000, including five constructed at Prescott Lakes in 2013, the most courts in one place in the quad-city area.
"Two years ago, 80 percent of the people bought homes in Prescott Lakes for the golf course," says Jim Robak, the tournament director, referee, and one of 130 members of the Prescott Lake Pickleball Club. "Now it's 50 percent golf and 50 percent pickleball."
"We chose Prescott Lakes because of pickleball [after moving from Tucson]," Waymeyer says.
When the Prescott Senior Olympics included the sport for the first time in 2013, 46 players signed up. This year there were more than 130, according to Robak, who gives lessons to club members every Tuesday.
"Some are young couples in their 30s," he says. "Others are in their 80s. On average, beginners can become skillful after two or three lessons once they get a feel for the game and learn the rules."
Novice players inevitably ask, "Why is it called pickleball?"
There are two versions of the origin of the name. Pritchard's wife Joan wrote in 2008 that she dubbed the game pickleball because "the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats."
McCallum, on the other hand, says the game was named after the Pritchards' dog Pickles, who used to chase the ball and run with it. Some folks claim both accounts are true.
Either way, the best description of pickleball probably came from Taryn Winter Brill in her report five years ago on the CBS-TV Early Show when she said:
"It's a sweet sport with a sour name."
Ed Wisneski can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.