On any given day on Vail’s pickleball courts, it’s not unusual to come across either a longtime local celebrity or a 12-year old on vacation with his family. There are international tourists. There are former tennis pros. Some players are in their 20s, some in their 80s. They have all discovered a common ground – rather, a precise square of silica court – and a common soundtrack of laughter along with a chorus of that distinctive “thock” noise when pickle meets paddle.
“It’s the fastest growing sport in the country,” says Vail Pickleball guru Jerry Stevens. “It’s such an easy game to pick up.”
What is pickleball, exactly? According to the sport’s governing body – the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) – the origin of the game traces back only to 1965, when Washington State congressman Joel Pritchard and businessman Bill Bell spontaneously came up with a ramshackle afternoon pastime for their bored families. The backyard game involved ping-pong paddles, a plastic ball and an old badminton court. Another friend, Barney McCallum, was brought into the fold and soon the trio of men created rules for the game. The first permanent pickleball court was built in another friend’s backyard in 1967 and by 1976, a collection of college tennis players competed in the first official pickleball tournament. The USAPA was born in 1984 and the sport has skyrocketed ever since.
Like tennis, pickleball can be played in either a singles or doubles format. The ball is lightweight and perforated, similar to a Wiffle ball. The racquets are short, solid paddles made of wood composite. The game is played on a badminton-sized court (44 by 20 feet) divided into four sections, two squares on each side of the net with a seven-foot buffer on each side to prevent spiking. The ball is served underhand, below the server’s waist and must bounce once in the opposite diagonal court. Only the serving team accrues points and each side is allowed to serve until that player or players commit a fault.
Typically, the first team to reach 11 points by at least two points wins.
Contrary to popular belief, pickleball was not named due to the customary suggestion that the game is best enjoyed when “pickled.” Stories differ regarding the origin of the name, but it is generally believed to be dubbed after either a pickle boat, the crew of which is notoriously mismatched and varied, or after the Pritchard’s family dog Pickle, who would allegedly run off with the ball regularly during the sport’s early days on the makeshift court.
Stevens is a long-time resident and athlete whose history includes launching sports shops such as Vail Athlete and Cascade Sports as well as helping to develop the local running, cycling, rugby and squash communities. He’s also had six knee surgeries, a pair of shoulder surgeries and hip replacements. Though initially skeptical, he became an immediate crusader for pickleball after playing his first game a few years ago.
“First of all, it’s a silly sounding name. I had never played. But when it was explained to me, it sounded fun. I played and got hooked… like most people do,” Stevens says.
Pickleball at the Vail Recreation District is available year-round, on the brand new set of six courts in Golden Peak from spring through fall as well as indoors at Red Sandstone Elementary School. Since pickleball was introduced in the valley in 2014, the veritable “who’s who” of participants have included Vail luminaries Rod and Beth Slifer as well as Sheika Gramshammer. Members of the French Alpine Ski Team, in town competing in last December’s Beaver Creek World Cup races, transitioned their coordinated off snow training to a few games of pickleball.
Entire groups of local elementary children sign up for clinics. Enthusiastic visitors from every corner of the earth are carving out windows during their stay for a round or two of drop-in pickleball. “It just continues to grow,” Stevens says. “If you’ve played any racquet sport at a high level, you’ll pick it up quickly. But it’s easy to play with all types. It really has a broad appeal. The more you play, the better you become and there’s more strategy involved.”
The obvious reason for its rapid growth is that pickleball is, quite simply, a lot of fun. “It’s very social,” Stevens says. “Even in the competitive games, there’s a lot of joking around. You’ll hear more laughing, yelling and joking around on the pickleball courts than anywhere else. That’s the appeal of it. I mean, how seriously can anyone take a game called pickleball?”