Relishing pickleball: Paddle ball sport growing in popularity in Lakelands


Pickleball, the sport with the funny name, has become quite popular in the Lakelands, across the nation and around the world during the past decade.

Invented in the 1960s, Pickleball is a paddle ball sport played on a badminton-sized court with the net set to a height of 34 inches at the center. It is played with a perforated plastic ball and composite or wooden paddles about twice the size of Ping-Pong paddles.

Lakelands players participate in the sport at various places, including the Greenwood Family YMCA, the Civic Center and Greenwood Recreation Complex, Gatewood Racquet Club, the Wesley Commons retirement community, Savannah Lakes Village, the Stoney Point community and at several area churches.

Greenwood even has its own pickleball store. Linda Naylor opened iDink Sports Boutique in December along Waller Avenue in Uptown. In addition to selling pickleball equipment, she helps people in the community get started with the sport and helps run clinics and tournaments. Her store is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

“The community has been supporting us very well,” Naylor said. “A lot of people don’t realize how big pickleball is here.”

While many players in the Lakelands are senior citizens, pickleball has become increasingly popular with youths.

In fact, the No. 1 professional player in the world is Anna Leigh Waters, 14, of Delray Beach, Florida.

“It’s pretty amazing — and a little weird — to go places and get recognized on the street or something,” Waters told the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California this past November. “But I really enjoy getting to travel around the country and play a pro sport where my family can travel with me. I’m making memories and having experiences that I would never have without pickleball, and it’s just a really exciting time for me right now.”

Naylor is planning an equipment trade-in program to support school and youth programs.

Naylor, who has been playing for six years, has competed in the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships. She said older people have flocked to pickleball, in part because it has less impact on their joints than playing other sports.

“A lot of tennis players come over to it,” she said. “It’s more social than a lot of other games are, and any age group can play it. I can play with my grandchildren.”

Naylor lived in Naples, Florida, before moving to the Greenwood area. She got involved in the sport when the East Naples Community Park was building courts. The park converted dozens of tennis courts and a skate park into 65 pickleball courts. The U.S. Open Pickleball Championships are played there each year.

“I’ve met people from all over the world through pickleball,” Naylor said. “Everyone is so friendly and social with this game.”

Dr. John Eichelberger has a lighted court at his home in Ninety Six.

“I was mainly a tennis player when I came here,” Eichelberger said. “As a doctor, I had to play golf or tennis. I played tennis.”

When his children were young, Eichelberger wanted to find something for them to do at home, so he built a pickleball court. He had been playing the sport two to three days a week at the Greenwood YMCA.

“I think it has become real popular,” Eichelberger said. “It’s very attractive to people who can’t play tennis anymore. It’s very, very social. Tennis is very competitive. Pickleball is very social and friendly.”

Marion Davis, who has been playing the sport for four years, is a member of Gatewood Racquet Club. The club has a growing pickleball program. Like Eichelberger, Davis started playing at the YMCA on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

“I loved it,” he said. “I used to play tennis a long time ago. I haven’t played in years. I wanted to get back to something to keep me active.”

Gatewood is hosting a pickleball camp, with beginner and intermediate sessions, Feb. 18-19. The club will host an inaugural USA Pickleball round-robin tournament March 11-13. The tournament will be capped at 200 players and will feature ladies’ doubles on the 11th, men’s doubles on the 12th and mixed doubles on the 13th.

Lynn Isenhower helped kickstart the program at Gatewood. The facility is largely used by non-resident members, she said.

“We have, however, had a large number of new residents move into Gatewood in the past 18 months, and I was looking for a way to engage them in our community while giving them added value for their POA dues,” Isenhower said.

Since Gatewood’s hardcourts are used by the Greenwood High School tennis teams in the spring and fall, Isenhower pressed Gatewood’s board to allow residents to mark and use those courts at the end of July — and through the start of high school season — to gauge resident interest.

“It was huge,” Isenhower said of the response. “We had over 50 residents coming out at various times of the week to learn to play.”

She scheduled and promoted regular days of free play, meaning people could show up without a partner and play or learn to play from those who already knew the sport. The club bought paddles and balls so interested people could learn before investing in equipment.

Gatewood’s board approved funds for permanent pickleball courts to be constructed this year. Players are currently playing on the hardcourts, using portable wheeled nets and chalk boundary lines that can be removed when the high school teams play.

“We have also learned that a majority of our resident players struggle on hardcourts due to the potential for injury and stress those courts put on backs and knees, so the new courts will be clay, watered from below and located on unused tennis courts 11 and 12,” Isenhower said.

Isenhower agrees with Naylor and Eichelberger about why the sport has become so popular.

“It’s a fast, fun, social game more like a backyard sport, and all ages and abilities can play together,” she said. “I see families on vacation playing, teens and parents, grandparents and grandkids, etc. Yet, if one is interested, there are enough technical skills one can improve on to give it a competitive vibe like tennis and provide a professional challenge, if one is really talented.”

Isenhower and her husband recently attended a Nike adult pickleball camp for three days.

“I was blown away by the depth of the instruction provided by touring pro Sarah Ansboury and her staff to the over 100 campers,” she said. “Here at Gatewood, it’s been a great way to get to know our neighbors. I’ve met more people in the past six months playing pickleball than in the past six years.”

Isenhower said the sport is really growing with young people in the area.

“They are where it is really taking off, yet people still think it’s an old-folks sport,” she said. “That’s probably because we’re just happy to be out there and competitive at something again, so we won’t stop talking about it.”

It’s also a relatively cheap sport, too, compared to golf, for instance.

“Well, all you need is a paddle, a couple of balls and a place to play,” Isenhower said.

Beginner paddle and ball sets cost about $25. You can even line off your driveway and purchase a portable net for about $150.

At Savannah Lakes Village in McCormick, pickleball is the fastest-growing activity offered, Recreation Center Manager Lana Stearns said. There are more than 100 players in the village who use the six dedicated pickleball courts.

SLV has ladder leagues several times a year and also has a professional pickleball coach to offer instructional clinics. The recreation center has a pickleball machine available to rent for practice. The beginner pickleball group uses the machine for its weekly instructional sessions.

“Playing pickleball is an activity that offers the players great exercise and a way to meet people in the community with a common interest in the sport,” Stearns said. “We give every new player the caution that, once you try it, you will be addicted.”

Wesley Commons has a dedicated group of pickleball players who play three to four times per week on the campus courts, and a few who play at off-campus venues around Greenwood.

Wesley Commons resident Ron Osborne plays four days a week with a group of eight or nine players. He said he likes it for the exercise and the social aspect. The community put in two new courts about five year ago.

“We have a lot of fun,” Osborne said. “We play doubles. Afterwards, you can’t remember how many games you won or lost.”

Jack McDowell, 91, first learned about pickleball while competing in the South Carolina Senior Sports Classic in Florence. During the competition, more than a decade ago, a person came for a pickleball demonstration for the competitors. McDowell said he always looked for something else to do during downtime at the classic.

McDowell began to play pickleball three days a week at the Greenwood YMCA and later joined a pickleball group at Wesley Commons.

“It keeps you moving,” McDowell said. “It’s a pretty quick game. It’s good relationships and a good game for friendly competition. I still try to compete with the (younger) guys. It keeps you up on your hand/eye coordination.” ~ Greg Deal, Index-Journal Greenwood, SC