COLUMBIA — Five years ago, there were four pickleball players in Columbia.
Pickleball, a sport played with wooden paddles on a tennis-like court, has been on the rise ever since Skip Deming first introduced the sport to the people of Columbia about five years ago. Deming was a longtime educator in Columbia Public Schools and is the founder of the Show-Me Pickleball Club.
On Tuesday night, Carole Kennedy, an official USA Pickleball Association Pickleball Ambassador, stood in front of the Columbia City Council as it unanimously voted to build four new pickleball courts at Albert-Oakland Park. The pickleball courts will replace two sand volleyball courts.
Pickleball is very similar to tennis, but played on a smaller court. It can be played one-on-one or in teams of two, and players hit a ball over a tennis-height net. A brief summary of the rules from the USAPA can be found here.
Kennedy said the group of players has grown immensely. The Show-Me Pickleball Club has more than 70 members on its email list, and at least 35 consistently play each week. The new courts will allow the club to have a place to play that doesn’t interrupt tennis players and will give the group a place to host pickleball tournaments.
The playing conditions were less than satisfactory when Kennedy began playing.
“When we wanted to play, we had to take that blue masking tape that painters use and mark off the court,” Kennedy said.
The next step for the sport came shortly afterward.
Mike Griggs, the Parks and Recreation Department director, said the department was hesitant to pursue the sport at first.
“When we started seeing how many people are actually using the courts, we said let’s go ahead and start double-painting the lines,” Griggs said.
The pickleball players didn’t have to put down tape to mark their courts anymore, but they still didn’t have a place of their own.
Three years ago, the Show-Me Pickleball Club began the process of asking the city for its own space. Kennedy said the city has been nothing but helpful and that the members of the pickleball club are very appreciative of its efforts.
“Never did we have any bad feelings about the city at all,” she said.
Now, years after Deming introduced the sport to Columbia, the city's pickleball players will have their own courts to play on.
"We had a perfect spot, if you ask me," Griggs said. "We knew we weren’t getting any use by sand volleyball courts."
And, they hope, they'll have many new people to play with.
“I have a whole new set of good friends," Kennedy said. "And these are people I did not even know before I started playing pickleball. We have professional people, we have retirees, we have business people. ... We have representatives from almost all the different areas."
Kennedy said the camaraderie and competitive nature of the sport have been important in its growth.
“It’s great activity, a great exercise. And quite frankly, it becomes a bit addictive," Kennedy said. "Once you play it, you fall in love with it."
In the last few months, the pickleball club has picked up a new partner, Shakespeare’s Pizza. Shakespeare’s has made the club pickleball T-shirts and sponsored events to spread the sport.
Kennedy said members of the club set up a court in the parking lot of Shakespeare’s South and played a game to help show what the sport is all about.
For Kennedy, bringing together the community has been the most important part of the growth of pickleball.
“I think the biggest advantage for pickleball is that it can be played by such a diverse group of people,” Kennedy said.
Looking forward, the Parks and Recreation Department will be monitoring the demand for more pickleball courts. If the sport continues to grow, Griggs said that it will play a part in the next park sales tax, which will be on the ballots for November 2015.
"It’s a great sport for young and old alike," Griggs said. "It’s not just a fad, it’s a sport that’ll be around for a while."
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