More and more players find pickleball to their taste

Four people standing over a net touch paddles inside a gym.
From left, Mike Collins, Marty Plitnick, Sharon Larson and Walter Rhodes touch paddles at the end of a pickleball game Wednesday at the Lynnhurst Recreation Center in Minneapolis. Rhodes enjoys the game because he says it combines "all the ingredients of a healthy lifestyle," which includes exercise and social aspects.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: Jan. 10, 2020

Walter Rhodes retired six months ago after several decades working for Ramsey County. Pretty quickly, he found a hobby.

"Now that I'm no longer working, I need to keep busy and keeping busy is playing pickleball and having a lot of fun,” said Rhodes, 72, who clearly loves the sport. “I play seven days a week."

He's among the faithful at the Lynnhurst Recreation Center. Last Wednesday, about 18 people rotated on and off three pickleball courts in the gym.

A man reaches out to a woman holding her head in her hands.
Walter Rhodes (right) comforts Sharon Larson during a pickleball game.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The game is a hybrid of racket and paddle sports — with a net that looks a lot like a tennis net, a paddle similar to those used in table tennis and a hollow ball that has a bit of bounce.

"The court is about half the size of a tennis court, the net is similar in height, I think it's slightly lower, and you play doubles,” said Karen Larson. She and her husband Rich help organize the drop-in pickleball at Lynnhurst. "It's good exercise, the court isn't as big, so if you're not a 25-year-old marathon runner you can move around the court. It's fast, it's fun, the games go quickly and you meet lots of really nice people."

A close up of a hands holding a green ball and a paddle.
Pickleball combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping pong.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Like Rhodes, the Larsons picked up the game shortly after retirement. Karen and Rich come to the gym together, but don't often play together.

“That's called divorce court,” she said, laughing. “We play together, but not exclusively. We don't want to. I see him all day, he's a lovely man, but … "

Pickleball’s popularity has been growing across all age groups in the Twin Cities. But it’s caught on especially with older adults who are finding it's a good way to stay in shape and find community.

Minneapolis has six indoor locations that offer pickleball drop-in games during the week. As the sport has grown in popularity, several pickleball-only courts have been built in the suburbs.

Three groups of people play pickleball on three courts in a gym.
Three pickleball courts are filled with players Wednesday at the Lynnhurst Recreation Center.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Minneapolis has yet to do that. Several local pickleball players have been lobbying for some.

“They're out in full force. And you know, they're just advocating for their sport, for what they enjoy,” said Tim Grate, the athletic program manager for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

Grate said he's seen interest in the sport clearly grow over the past five years. And he said the parks board is looking at different possibilities for putting some courts in.

“I think it's important to give them what they need and we'll try to do something,” he said. “I think there are a few places in the city that I think they were actually looking to see if there's enough space to put pickleball-only courts in."

Last week, Lori Murphy of Bloomington arrived with a friend at the Lynnhurst gym for drop-in pickleball. She knew no one there and had never played the game.

"I kind of figured I'd see some older people, which there are, and I am too. But boy, were they friendly when first I walked in the door,” she said. “I was kind of surprised. Took away any trepidation I had."

Soon, she and her friend had paddles and were rotating on and off the courts, sharing Christmas cookies that one of the regulars had brought.

"I will definitely come back,” she said.

A person raises their arms in a gym.
Susan Perpich (second right) reacts as a ball goes out of bounds past Monica Collins (left) during a pickleball game.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Minneapolis resident Miles Johnson, who had back surgery in 2015, said the sport has helped him recover and kept him healthy.

"We have a great time. You get to know everyone. And this thing sharpens your balance, your reflexes and agility, and builds certain kinds of muscles up at the same time,” he said. “So it's great."

Moreover, he said, he's found a good group of friends.

"You fall in love with it. It's such a natural kind of experience, where it's filled with not only a good physical workout, but it's filled with joy,” Johnson said.

Correction (Dec. 23, 2019): An earlier version of this story misidentified Walter Rhodes in a photo caption.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.