Pickleball popularity persists on island

South Whidbey has a great deal of interest in a sport know for being popular with older folks.

With an active retirement community, it may not be surprising that South Whidbey has a great deal of interest in a sport know for being popular with older folks.

The pickleball craze sweeping the nation shows no sign of wearing off on the island, with a grant application in the works for more courts backed by tens of thousands of dollars in pledges.

“I don’t see anything but growth,” said Barry Haworth, head of Whidbey Pickleball Association, an informal consortium of players.

“People are dedicated to the sport,” Haworth added. “Permanent public courts will serve current players and drive future growth. The social aspect of the sport increases its popularity and some players develop good friendships.”

South Whidbey High School graduates Riley and Lindsey Newman are the reigning national mixed doubles champions. The sister-brother team won the U.S. Open last December in Palm Springs. The Newmans currently live and train in Arizona.

Pickleball, which was recently named the official state sport, has picked up tremendously in the last five years on the island, according to Sky Dunn, recreation supervisor for South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District.

He says there is definitely a strong demand for more facilities.

As reported by the Whidbey News-Times last month, the Oak Harbor City Council approved an agreement with the school district for two more pickleball courts in a city park. Speaking to council members, Oak Harbor Parks Operations Manager Don Crawford said he gets a high number of calls about playing facilities.

First known as “Pickle Ball,” the activity originated as a children’s backyard game on Bainbridge Island in 1965. The sport uses a plastic ball with holes and combines elements of badminton, tennis and ping-pong. Supposedly the name comes either from a dog or a rowing term to describe participants left over in the crew selection process.

Now, a national magazine describes pickleball as “the Wild West,” with “dinkers and bangers” (players), organizations, and promoters competing for prominence in “the fastest-growing sport in America.” According to Sports Illustrated, pickleball and its nearly five million players are in the throes of ambitions, growing pains and potential.

As if to validate the magazine report, Riley and Lindsey Newman describe themselves as sponsored professional pickleball players who offer training and special appearances. Riley Newman currently has a top three world ranking for Men’s and Mixed Doubles.

At the local level, Dunn said pickleball is a great activity for an older population.

“People get active quickly and that’s our goal,” Dunn said. “As a competitive social activity, it is way beyond bridge or canasta. We love it.”

In recent years, the park district converted an unused parking lot at the South Whidbey Sports Complex on Langley Road into four courts. There are three indoor courts at South Whidbey Community Center. Dunn said he gets several calls each week and people are still asking for more facilities. Those which are available are almost always in use.

Dunn said the district has submitted two grant applications for state funds to build six dedicated courts near Langley Road. With help from volunteers, the district hopes to offer more summer evening playing time. The district also has portable nets that people can borrow.

“If people can find a place to play, they will,” said Dunn. “We’re always working with the community to make the program better. We want people to get activity.”

Haworth said play usually involves a team of two players, partners are mixed, and local players come with varying levels of experience. The group offers training, and doesn’t turn anyone away, he said. Anyone interested can get more information by e-mail, WhidbeyIslandPickleball@whidbey.com.

Haworth said the local players’ group supported the grant requests by getting pledges of $52,000 in less than a month. There are more fundraising activities ahead, as he said pickleball could be a launching pad for expanded recreational activities on South Whidbey.

A regulation pickleball court is 20 feet by 44 feet. Haworth said some people who have the space set up a court at their home.

Haworth also said pickleball is getting close to consideration as an Olympic sport. To qualify, there has to be organized play in 70 countries. He said pickleball is already organized and popular in South America, Europe, Hong Kong, and China.

Wayne Sedgewick tracks and prepares to return a serve. (Photo by David Welton)

Wayne Sedgewick tracks and prepares to return a serve. (Photo by David Welton)