How a game with a silly name––Pickleball––arrived in Wilton
Pickleball, the low-impact, high fun sport that can be played by all ages, is fast becoming a popular pursuit in Wilton.
Photo by Stan Godlewski
As a kid did you ever make up a game? You’re standing on a field with some friends, kicking the dirt on a summer afternoon and wondering what could make the day less boring. And then you see a piece of wood. Someone says, “Hey, that piece of wood looks cool. Let’s make up a game. Here are the rules. These are the number of pieces of wood that are needed for the game.” And as the ideas start to fly your new pickup game is born, and you play all summer, enjoying hours of fun each day.
You could say that Pickleball started that way, only the kids were adults. Three dads in 1965 (Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum) were hanging out on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle. They were looking for an activity that families and friends could participate in, so they found a whiffle ball and made some paddles out of wood, and started making up rules for a game, deciding on “Pickleball” for a name. Common belief is that the name was in honor of Pritchard’s family cocker spaniel, Pickles, who loved to chase stray balls. However, Pritchard’s daughter stated in an interview that they were really “just looking for a nutty name.” But by the time some journalists tried to debunk the myth, the Official Pickleball Handbook had already been printed so they just left the original story alone.
Now, 53 years later, Pickleball is not just a game, it’s a sport that has spread quickly in the U.S. from west to east, arriving in Wilton in the summer of 2017. Mike Kazlauskas, Camp and Sports Director at the Riverbrook Regional YMCA in Wilton, recalls how Kim Becker, a Pickleball enthusiast, introduced him to a one-stop shop called Pickleball Central, which supplied anything the YMCA might need to set up a game. Kazlauskas hadn’t heard about Pickleball yet, so he spent time online, watching videos and collecting information. Once he was hooked, he ordered the supplies, painted some lines in the gym to form three courts, and Pickleball was off and running. The Y’s advertisements and emails piqued curiosity and attracted a few willing participants. And now, after a year, the Y has three full courts running during the allotted play time, with 30 enthusiastic players.
If you are not familiar with Pickleball, you might imagine a bunch of 70-plus people shuffling about a small court and using a ball that makes a hollow chink! when it is lobbed over the net and hits the floor. However, it’s anything but that. Kazlauskas, who is 27, recalled his first experience with a seasoned 75-year-old player. “He told me that I might want to move back a bit, to protect myself, and I thought, from what? A whiffle ball? Shortly after that a ball whipped by me.” Since then, Sports Director heeds his senior partners’ instructions, noting, “Age had nothing to do with this sport.” On another occasion some 12 to 15 year olds had wanted to use the gym but a Pickleball game was in session. Instead of turning them away, Kazlauskas invited them to play, adding, “They had a blast.” And that is what’s great about Pickleball: Generational divides seem to fade away. A twenty-something coach can compete with a septuagenarian and entice a 15 year old to give it a try. “Plus,” Kazlauskas adds, “you can meet some really great people, have fun, and make new friends.”
As for town plans, Wilton recreation director Steve Pierce explains that the Wilton is exploring the addition of some dedicated courts and is currently working on the funding. “For now, we’re offering some tennis courts at Middlebrook School—at which lighter lines have been drawn to indicate the smaller-sized court—and there is also one court at the Comstock Community Center.” Having tried his hand at Pickleball, Pierce adds, “This is a life sport, and a fast-growing one, plus it’s a good workout, especially as our population ages. So we are trying to solve this for Wilton and address this as it picks up speed.”
Who knows if Pickleball would have ever become anything if we weren’t all just kids at heart? Left to our imaginations, a few empty summertime hours and with an openness to always be childlike we can create fun social connections that take on a life of their own. Like Pickleball, a small pickup game with a nutty name can go from a simple way to pass the time, to a full-fledged movement.
- Players are welcome at the Wilton YMCA on Tuesdays and Fridays from 1:15 pm to 3 pm.
- As a member of the YMCA, Pickleball is free. But it’s still affordable to walk-ins at only $10 a play and is free to first-time players.
- Paddles and balls are available for all players.
- Clothing is similar to tennis: comfortable wear, and sneakers with side support.
- The Kitchen: is the non-volley zone, adjacent to the net. The term was originally used in the game of Shuffleboard.
- Dinking: is a soft shot that is intended to arc over the net and land within your opponent’s non-volley zone.
- Serving: serving in Pickleball must always be underhand (which is harder than it sounds).
- It’s estimated there will be three million Pickleball players in the U.S. this year; that number has grown 385 percent since 2010.
- Check out wiltonymca.org for more information, or call 203-762-8384. Ask to speak to Charisse, the member service coordinator who is a true Pickleball lover.
- You can also call Wilton Parks & Recreation to get more information about where and when courts are available: 203-834-6234.