'What's the deal with pickleball?'
Local athletes say fast-growing game is kosher for everyone

BY G. ANTHONIE RIIS
Gold Standard | Staff Writer
Arguably considered the fastest growing sport in the United States, pickleball combines net sports and their rules and has taken hold at Fort Knox.
Probably the biggest hindrance to the growth of the burgeoning sport, however, might be the bewildering name, says one local athlete.
"I really would like for someone to come up with a better name," said Carl Gatewood, the current Kentucky State Open Racquetball champion for both the 50- and 60-year-old age groups. "This sport has outpaced racquetball and is growing so much that it is likely to catch up to tennis in popularity and the number of people who play."
If the puzzling name is the worst deterrent to the game's legitimacy, Gatewood says the number of people able to play and play competitively is its best asset.
"The game is more about skill and ball placement, and that evens the playing field between the ages of people who might play competitively together," Gatewood said. "The speed and strength of youth are somewhat handicapped by the whiffle ball and older athletes are able to hang in there."
Other factors that contribute to the games popularity are the low costs of start-up equipment and the availability of places to play.
"All it takes is a racket and wiffle ball. You could buy a net, but if you're playing outside, you'd typically use a tennis court," Gatewood said. "There are only slight differences in the size of the court and height of the net. Where the game has caught on, the tennis courts are filled with pickleball players."
There are multiple benefits of playing pickleball, according to Gatewood, who said it might actually help athletes play other sports with less pain.
"It's slower than racquetball or tennis, so there's less hard starting and stopping impact on your knees and hips," Gatewood said. "You're not having to hit the ball as hard or as fast either, and that saves your shoulders and elbows, too."
Gatewood said the sport is a boon to players' cardiovascular health and can definitely keep calories in check.
"Your heart is pumping and you're always moving. It's slower, but it's still very fast," Gatewood said. "You're burning plenty of calories but at a more measured pace. It's a slightly slower pace, but you're able to keep that pace for longer."
The slowed pace keeps the game competitive for older athletes, those who are less athletic and beginning athletes, says Gatewood. That makes everyone a viable competitor.
"Older and younger can play together and you're not going to see the disparity between the ages that you see in racquetball and tennis," Gatewood said. "The youth aren't going to dominate because of their greater strength and speed."
Gatewood said the sport really appeals to the less athletic and novice players because it keeps them swinging instead of throwing in the towel.
"They are going to have more opportunity to hit the ball and make things happen," Gatewood said. "That keeps them interested and coming back to the game instead of getting discouraged and quitting.
For the same reasons, pickleball becomes a great segue to other racket and net sports.
"The fundamentals are the same," Gatewood said. "The mechanics of hitting the ball and placing the ball are essentially the same. The rules are close enough that the beginner gets the basics needed for other competitive sports and the transition is minimal."
Gatewood says athletes might even supplement their training regimen with it. Pickleball has been a great new way for Gatewood to enjoy spending time with his family and friends.
"I've played with my son and his family. My granddaughter is 11 years old and we play every weekend that we can," Gatewood said. "You can play singles or doubles with people of various ages and skill levels and you're going to have a great time."
Gatewood is adamant about the benefits of the sport and openly advocates for it as therapeutic and a means of keeping wounded Soldiers with crippling ailments in the fight.
"The Army is normally leading the way when it comes to something like this. This is catching on everywhere else and people are seeing the benefits," Gatewood said. "The [Warrior Transition Unit], Soldiers, civilians, retirees, couch potatoes and kids could really use this. Soldiers could really benefit from pickleball, but so far there has been little interest.
"There are very few places to play here, but given the chance, this sport could really get people moving and improve their lives."

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Photo cutlines:

Pickelball01:
Jim Rosebalm gets low to return a volley during a pickleball game at the Sadowski Center. Pickleball combines aspects of all net sports where players use wooden paddles to hit wiffle balls over a net on a court comparable to a tennis court. (Photo by G. Anthonie Riis | The Gold Standard)

Pickelball02:
Mark Riorden serves during a pickleball game as doubles partner Jolene Black looks on. Riorden uses pickleball to battle Parkinson's disease saying that the game helps preserve stabilizer muscles that help with lateral movement and keep his left arm limber. (Photo by G. Anthonie Riis | The Gold Standard)

Pickelball03:
Bruce and Laura Bower model the "Pickleball" shirt that Bruce designed. Despite the confusing name, pickleball has arguably become the fastest growing sport in America. (Photo by G. Anthonie Riis | The Gold Standard)