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The Sun

Let's play pickleball

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 09:19 AM

Jerry Benningfield and his wife, Dolores, lace up each morning and head to the courts with their rackets in hand. But they're not on their way to community hall to play tennis.

They and 139 others in their club are addicted to the game of pickleball, and the "rackets" they use are actually paddles.

"It's a fun sport for people of all ages and skill levels," said Benningfield, 67, president of the Sun City Center Pickleball Club. "It can be very competitive but here in Sun City Center it's more of a social, recreational game."

His wife, who he met on a pickleball court, agrees.

"We've found many of the people who now play pickleball used to play other sports like tennis or golf," she said. "But their limbs don't work like they used to."

Nevertheless, the sport provides a good workout.

The fast-moving sport, played on a small surface, provides plenty of aerobic exercise, stretching, friendly competition and opportunities for social engagement.

"Many forms of exercise are pure torture," said Benningfield, 67. "With pickleball you get so into the game you don't even realize it when your pulse rate hits 150. And most games are only 15 minutes."

The club's oldest member is 88-year-old Ken Barringer, a minister and psychologist who plays about three times a week and has for the past 10 years.

"Even though I lose most of the time, I love it," he said. "I'm writing a book on healthy aging, and I try to live out the principles I teach."

You could say pickleball is a hybrid of tennis, badminton and table tennis.

Played with a paddle similar to a table tennis paddle, games take place on a court that looks like a tennis court but is similar to a badminton court. Instead of a shuttlecock, players hit a 3-inch wiffle ball.

The game originated in 1965 in the backyard of former U.S. Rep Joel Pritchard of Washington. While there are many variations to the story, the general consensus is that it was developed as a means to address boredom. Two paddles were cut out of plywood, a badminton net lowered and, when no suitable ball could be found, a neighbor's wiffle ball used. Word got around and before long a new sport was born.

There were rumors the sport had been named after the Pritchard family dog, Pickles, but Pritchard's wife, Joan, said in an interview years later that the more likely source was a comment she made at the time about the game reminding her of the pickle boat in the sport of crew, where oarsmen are chosen from the leftovers of other boats.

The cost to play is minimal.

Today's paddles range from simple wooden models that cost about $10 to carbon fiber and other high-tech versions costing as much as $100. In Sun City Center, balls are supplied by the club, which charges a $26 annual membership fee. There are no court fees.

Benningfield said if you don't know how to play, no worries. The club provides free beginners' lessons every Tuesday at 1 p.m. at the courts behind Community Hall, 1910 S. Pebble Beach Blvd.

Kings Point and Valencia Lakes have pickleball clubs and courts of their own.

Hillsborough County Parks Recreation and Conservation has recognized the exploding nature of the sport and is introducing programs at some of its community centers.

"We started a pickleball club with eight to 10 players at Northdale last November," said programs specialist Russell Elefterion. "Now we have 38."

Elefterion said the club was formed in response to requests from seniors there. The Northdale Recreation Center provides free lessons at 11 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, and club members travel once a month as a group to play teams in places like Anna Maria Island, Clearwater and St. Pete Beach. They will be coming to Sun City Center in April.

Also, the Gardenville Community Center in Gibsonton is adding pickleball to its programs this month.

"It's definitely an up-and-coming sport," said Dave Ramirez, recreation programs supervisor. "Pickleball is the biggest event in our Tampa Bay Senior Games every October."


For information on the Sun City Center Pickleball Club, visit pickleball.suncityctr.org. Contact Lois Kindle at lkindle@tampatrib.com.
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