What is the fastest growing sport in the United States? You may be surprised by the answer.
Having nothing to do with pickles, the fast-emerging sport is a combination of several already popular sports. Players use a badminton-sized court, play with a modified tennis net and use a paddle similar to that used for ping-pong. A ball with holes (similar to a Wiffle ball) is used, with variations for both indoor and outdoor play.
While the pickleball movement is sweeping the US, it has also found popularity right here in Owensboro.
Josh Lambert, Recreation Team Leader at Owensboro Christian Church (OCC), first heard of the sport when approached by two ladies that wanted to find space to play in his facility. Unsure of the idea, especially with a name like pickleball, Lambert was hesitant to provide space. But after playing the sport himself, Lambert admits he was hooked.
In 2015 Lambert taped off a small section of the recreation center basketball court to form one pickleball court. It only took a few months before two more courts were added.
“If I could run it all day, this gym would stay full with pickleball players,” Lambert said.
One person you are likely to find on the court is Rene Kuegel, who was one of the people that petitioned Lambert to start pickleball at OCC.
“It’s just a fun way to exercise,” Kuegel said. “You realize the next day that you’re sore and it must have been a good workout. It is exercising, just not at a high intensity.”
Kuegel became so passionate about the sport that she decided to form Owensboro Pickleball Association (OPA) in September 2017. She, along with five board members, is working toward growing the pickleball movement in Owensboro, creating age and level division tournaments. Kuegel sees a bright future for pickleball in Owensboro that involves outdoor courts, clinics for people to improve their game, beginners’ classes, leagues for children, and outreach programs to teach kids that don’t fit the mold for other sports.
“This sport is not age limited,” Kuegel said. “It originated for the 50+ crowd, but any age and skill level can enjoy the game together.”
Beth Merchant, secretary for OPA, and her husband, Altaf Merchant, were both avid tennis players. That is, until they were introduced to pickleball. Now the two are sponsored pickleball players and ambassadors for Onix, a pickleball manufacturer. “I loved tennis,” Beth Merchant said. “But after Rene introduced me to pickleball, I was addicted.”
And perhaps the best thing about the sport is the people. Pickleball players love their sport so much they visit the USA Pickleball association website, where they can find a game anywhere in the US. Lambert says he has found games across the county and never travels without his paddle. Lambert says he has at least two out-of-town people a month walk in the OCC Rec Center with their own paddles, ready to play pickleball.
And while all who play the game say it’s fun, it is the community that seems to keep players coming back. OPA President Tom Bowers says, “It is the most welcoming sport to newcomers.”
And that is obvious as soon as you walk on the court. Young are playing with old. Newbies are playing with the more skilled players. And there are droves of people on the sidelines, both cheering on their friends and anxious to get on the court themselves.