Take a guess at what currently ranks as the fastest growing sport in the U.S. and the world. Would you believe it’s pickleball?
Okay, the sport has nothing to do with dills or gherkins. But according to Eugenean Roger Schaljo, it’s an easy game to pick up, “and it’s much more fun than a treadmill.” Schaljo would know. He’s the founding president of the Emerald Valley Pickleball Club.
Although pickleball officially incorporated in 1972, it didn’t find a landing spot in Eugene until sometime around 2012, when the Berean Baptist Church offered several dozen retirees access to courts on church property. That’s when Schaljo first stepped into his teacher/organizer/booster role.
“I think of it almost as ping pong,” says Schaljo, “only it’s like you’re standing on the table.” Like tennis, the game is played in singles or doubles—except the court is smaller, the net is lower, and racquets amount to large wooden paddles. The actual pickleball resembles a baseball-sized whiffle ball.
Pickleball action can be very fast at times, then suddenly shift to soft and slow. The ball is returned (smashed, lobbed, dinked, etc.) before (or after) bouncing off the court. Players cannot stand in 4-foot deep zones (“kitchens”) extending back from the foot of the net. The rules make for frequent close play to the net, which in turn adds extra sociability to the mix.
Pickleball popularity is exploding in most cities, but especially in communities with large retirement populations. In Eugene-Springfield, the sport boasts its own unique features. Though area player counts are still relatively modest, the recent addition of eight outdoor courts at Springfield’s Meadow Park, plus increasing court totals in schools and gyms, have launched local fan interest on a sharp, upward trajectory.
Plus, the presence of two local singles players and a doubles team holding national titles is surely impressive. One of the champions, former UO tennis coach Buzz Summers, owns claim to the title of best player in the 80-and-older age bracket. Much like local Pickleball Club president Schaljo, Summers has earned a widespread reputation as an outstanding ambassador for his sport.