Meet a group of ladies who stay out of the kitchen — at least when they’re playing pickleball.
You read that right: pickleball. It’s a sport that’s gaining popularity from Seattle to Mumbai, despite its name and rules.
Rena Rosenfeld will forgive you if you’ve never heard of pickleball. And then, she’ll recruit you to play. Rosenfeld is on a mission to bring the sport to Miami Beach, which may mark the first time pickleball breaks into Miami-Dade County.
“It’s a fabulous sport,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s like a secret. Nobody knows about it. You say ‘pickleball,’ and everybody cracks up at the name.”
The 66-year old snowbird has rounded up a bunch of friends in the 60- and 70-something crowd who gather about once a week to play at the Scott Rakow Youth Center in Miami Beach. They’re looking to grow their informal league.
“I think once people find out about this, there will be four courts in this gymnasium. It won’t be one court, because it catches on really fast,” said 63-year old Mindy Chermak. “Anyone can play the first time, and it’s great for seniors because you don’t have any of the injuries of tennis.”
Mitchell Ball, the South Florida ambassador of the USA pickleball Association (USAPA), is also working on bringing the sport farther south. Until now, Ball has focused on starting eight locations in Broward County.
“It’s busted at the seams,” said Ball, 52.
Pickleball is most often described as a cross between tennis and ping pong. It’s played with a Wiffle ball and a wood or composite paddle about twice the size of a ping pong paddle.
Since pickleball is played on a smaller, badminton-sized court, the sport is considered less stressful on the body than tennis. Some of the rules also make the game less intense, such as a prohibition on hitting the ball in an area of the court closest to the net, called the kitchen.
“Women are so happy. They turn to their husbands and say, ‘I’m staying out of the kitchen,’ ” Ball said.
The nature of the game makes it attractive for older adults.
“We’re at that age where my 66-year old friends are having knee replacements because of tennis,” Rosenfeld said.
But about that name. No one is really sure how the sport came to be known as pickleball.
The wife of one of the game’s inventors told the USAPA that she came up with the name because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”
The more commonly told story is that one of the game’s inventors had a dog named Pickles that would chase after the Wiffle balls.
“Whether or not that’s true, who cares? It’s so much fun,” Rosenfeld said.
She was introduced to it after a tennis center in Sag Harbor, on the eastern end of Long Island, set up pickleball courts. Rosenfeld spends her summers there with her partner, 68-year old Marilyn Mercogliano.
When they arrived at their winter home on Belle Island in Miami Beach, it hit Rosenfeld:
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh there’s no pickleball. I really want pickleball to come to South Beach,’ ” Rosenfeld said. “It’s all north of us: Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Aventura — all of those areas.”
Rosenfeld reached out to Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who got her in touch with the right people at the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. After bouncing around a bit, the city found a home for pickleball players at the Rakow center, making the basketball courts there available during the day while kids are in school.
“We try to program the facility based on the community needs and I’m always welcome to hearing new and exciting suggestions,” said Ellen Vargas, the facility manager at the youth center.
The game is as much about staying active (“I actually lowered my blood pressure…by walking and playing this sport,” Mercogliano said) as it is about having a good time.
During a recent game, Rosenfeld and four of her friends laughed through two games.
Mercogliano dashed after a ball while suggesting a different set of rules for players over a certain age. Chermak shouted encouragement and advice. And 75-year old Mary Silverman, playing for the first time, joked: “To the emergency room after this. I’m hanging in until the last minute.”
Though the game in Miami Beach is lighthearted, it can get competitive. Ball said he has a paddle with the words “Hit me” on it and called pickleball “phenomenal exercise.”
The game is especially popular in the northern parts of the country. In Florida, the game has taken off in retirement communities like Naples and in Central Florida.
Ruth Rosenquist, a spokeswoman for USAPA, said The Villages in Central Florida is “one of the biggest pickleball epicenters in the world.” The retirement community and surrounding area has about 130 pickleball courts, and counting, Rosenquist said.
“And I’m told there’s a waiting list. I mean, you actually have to get on a waiting list to get on one of these 130 courts,” she said.
The USAPA was created in 1984 to formalize rules, sanction tournaments, develop a ranking system and educate the public about the obscure sport.
According to the organization, three fathers, one of them a Washington state senator, created the game on a summer day after coming home to a houseful of bored kids. So they came up with a new activity the family could do together.
The USAPA sanctions a tournament every year, now in its sixth year. The last competition, held in Arizona, attracted 600 players from five different countries.
And though the game has grown on senior citizens, it’s also becoming popular with a younger set.
“There’s really becoming a surge, we’re seeing, of pickleball coming into YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs. So once that happens, it really becomes mainstream,” Rosenquist said.
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