July 16, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article published in July/August 2015 60-Plus.

It’s played on a badminton-size court, but with the net lowered to 34 inches at the center. The paddles look like a hybrid of racquetball racquets and table tennis paddles. The rules are somewhat similar to tennis, but the serve is underhand. And the ball looks more like a whiffle ball than a vinegar-soaked cucumber.  It’s Pickleball—a sport that is quickly gaining a large following, with the local club, Pickleball Omaha, boasting around 225 members.

The game’s origins date back to a 1965 Washington state backyard, and even its creators can’t quite agree on whether the name came from a family dog or a term associated with rowing. Regardless of this, pickleball has evolved over 50 years from an improvised family pastime to a thriving, widely recognized passion. The statewide organization, Pickleball Nebraska, was founded in 2012, and the sport has been part of Nebraska’s State Games of America (formerly Cornhusker State Games) since 2011. It is even going to be part of the State Games of America’s national competition for the first time this summer when Nebraska serves as host state.

Pickleball Nebraska President Bill Holt discovered the sport in 2008 while wintering in Arizona. It was popular with the retirement crowd there, he says, but relatively unknown back home in Nebraska—without an organized following or designated courts. So Holt and his wife, Nancy, created a makeshift playing field on an Omaha tennis court that spring and began introducing friends to the sport. Interest has grown steadily since.

Pickleball3

“There was no place to play pickleball in Nebraska that I was aware of, and nobody I knew played,” Holt says. “We now have 10 places to play listed (on the USA Pickleball Association website at uspaa.org) and there are actually more than that.” More information on this pastime is available at pickleballnebraska.wordpress.com, and players can now also find local places to participate through the club’s page on Facebook.

Like Holt, Camille Culp’s association with pickleball originated in Arizona. Her husband, Wayne, played the game for the first time on a business trip six years ago, introduced Camille, and soon the couple found other enthusiasts in Omaha. Culp was one of the first women to play locally, and she says introductory clinics, open play sessions, and a welcoming community have helped the sport grow in the area. Women now make up more than half of Pickleball Nebraska’s membership.

“That’s the pickleball thing, always chat up whoever stops by,” says Culp, who now serves as the group’s treasurer. “They can try it right away and see what they think, and of course, in my opinion, 95 percent of them are hooked.”

Pickleball2

Holt says club members range from 30-something to 82, and most participants play doubles. A high degree of physical conditioning isn’t necessary to start, but the game can be very intense and local players self-classify as A-level, B-level, or somewhere in between to determine if they should play recreationally or competitively.

“Anybody can join. The typical person is 60-65 and has played sports; I’ve always been fairly active in one thing or another,” Holt says. “Anyone can learn to play…it’s great for all ages.”

“It’s relatively easy to learn,” Culp agrees. “I only see the sport getting more popular.”

Pickleball1

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