Pickleball finding its niche with the over-50 crowd in Peoria

Pickleball has come to Peoria, and the over-50 crowd is making it happen.

“I was introduced to it in Arizona,” said Fred Fry, 68, a retired Bradley University professor who has been visiting Arizona during the winter for about 10 years. “It’s a major thing in snow bird areas.”

Fry said the sport started becoming popular among seniors more than 10 years ago. A cross between tennis, badminton and table tennis, pickleball is played with a wiffle ball.

“You serve underhanded, which is easier, and the court is smaller, so you don’t have to run so far,” said Fry. “But you still get all the activity and exercise.”

Pickleball has actually been around since the 1960s. It was invented by a family in Washington state who had use of an asphalt badminton court, but couldn’t find a shuttlecock. Instead they substituted a wiffle ball, which they quickly found didn’t work very well with badminton racquets, so they made paddles that looked like oversized ping-pong paddles. After a bit of experimentation with the net height and the rules, pickleball was born.

“The name pickleball came from the fact that one of the families playing had a dog named Pickles,” said Fry. “He kept running off with the ball, so they started calling it Pickles’ ball.”

On a recent Thursday morning, Fry and his wife Lois, 64, played pickleball with about 10 other people at the Peoria Park District’s Franciscan Center.

Players meet there for friendly competition on the center’s three indoor courts on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. On Monday and Friday mornings players meet in lower Glen Oak Park on four old tennis courts recently repaired and converted into pickleball courts.

The Frys have been instrumental in getting pickleball into the Peoria Park District programming. The couple met Gloria Phelps, coordinator of mature adult programing for the park district, at the Senior Olympics a couple years ago. It didn’t take much convincing to get her interested in pickleball, Fry said.

“She took pickleball on as one of her babies,” he said.

Phelps got pickleball courts installed at Glen Oak Park, the Franciscan Center, and Methodist North on Allen Road. She plans to have a total of four indoor sites available by this winter. In addition, she’s planning a clinic for beginners at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, July 14, and a tournament at 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, both in Glen Oak Park.

“I’m going to put together a pickleball party,” she said about the tournament, officially named the First Annual Peoria Park District Pickleball Festival and Tournament. Phelps is excited because the sport is proving to be quite popular.

“There’s an expanding group of pickleball players throughout central Illinois,” she said. “Anyone 50 or older who is interested in league play should call us.”

Part of what makes pickleball so popular is that it’s fun even for players who aren’t particularly athletic.

“Walking is about all I ever did,” said Lois Fry. “I’ve never been athletic. But when I got on the court and did this, it was just kind of addicting. I could tell right away it was good fun and great exercise.”

Lois Fry picked up the paddle one day when her husband finished a game. She’s been playing ever since.

The pickleball paddle looks like a ping pong paddle, but it’s bigger. Fred Fry said area sporting good stores are not yet carrying pickleball equipment, but it can be purchased online. Good paddles run from about $60 to $100, making them a bit of an investment, but that shouldn’t stop interested people from playing – all the necessary equipment is available to players at the Franciscan Center on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. And in Glen Oak Park paddles and balls can be checked out for free from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday at the recreation offices in the Park Pavilion. Call Gloria Phelps to reserve equipment, 681-2859.

The Peoria Park District’s pickleball sessions are open to anyone who wants to get a little exercise and meet some fun people.

Games are low-key, and players can sit and chat for as long as they like between matches. While some players really get into the competitive aspects of the sport, others just enjoy being sociable. Fred Fry encourages new players, 50 or older, to show up at the Franciscan Center on Tuesday and Thursday mornings – he and the other players will be happy to teach them the game.

“The best thing about pickleball is that it’s a fun sport in which you can get a lot of exercise and meet some nice people,” he said.


Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @LeslieRenken.


Want to play pickleball?

-Players meet for friendly competition from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday at the Peoria Park District’s Franciscan Center, 908 Sterling Ave., West Peoria. $2.50 drop-in fee, or purchase a punch card with 10 visits for $20. Equipment available to borrow.

-Players also meet at the outdoor pickleball courts in lower Glen Oak Park on Mondays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Free. Loaner equipment is available at the recreation office at the Glen Oak Park Pavilion at no charge, but driver’s license will be kept until equipment is returned. Call Gloria Phelps to reserve, 681-2859.

-A clinic for beginners will be held at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, July 14, at the pickleball courts in lower Glen Oak Park. Free.

-The First Annual Peoria Park District Pickleball Festival and Tournament will be held starting at 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, at the pickleball courts in lower Glen Oak Park. To register call Gloria Phelps, 681-2859.

For more information contact Gloria Phelps, Peoria Park District coordinator of mature adult programing, 681-2859, visit peoriaparks.org., or visit the U.S. pickleball association’s official website at www.usapa.org. Click on Illinois for local information.

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