The name of the sport is “pickleball,” and if it sounds silly then so be it. Just be assured there is a lot of silliness going on in Mercer County these days and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Pickleball has become the fastest growing sport in America, particularly for those 50 and over. An example of the explosion can be found at Veterans Park in Hamilton, where pickleball courts were installed at the tail end of last season.
“Last year, we sold about 160 passes for tennis for the whole year, through October,” said long-time employee Joe Russo, who works in the park’s tennis office. “This year, at the start of July, we had sold over 300 passes and I guarantee you they were more pickleball than tennis. It’s been incredible.”
Those are the kind of statistics Karin Rentschler loves to hear as she spreads the gospel of pickleball throughout Central Jersey.
A former Lawrence High tennis player who has lived in Robbinsville for over 25 years, Rentschler is the official United States of America Pickleball Association Ambassador for the Greater Mercer County Area. A career public relations woman, Rentschler was introduced to pickleball in 2013 and became an emissary of the sport one year later.
“The USAPA was looking for people to promote it as ambassadors,” she said. “I passed with flying colors. You just have to be very enthusiastic, know the rules, know the game, have some competence in the sport, and just be able to use your background and history to promote it. I had been in communications. I thought it would be pretty easy to be able to let people know how much the sport was good for them and how much fun they would have.”
It is a labor of love for Rentschler, who embraced pickleball after being introduced to it at The Villages in Florida. Unable to play tennis anymore due to hand and elbow surgeries, she was immediately drawn to a sport that had some of the same tendencies as other paddle and racket activities.
Upon returning to New Jersey, Rentschler noticed that the Sawmill YMCA in Hamilton was advertising for pickleballers at their new indoor courts. Eight people, including Rentschler, showed up and began learning the sport. She proudly notes there are now 14 two-hour sessions at the same site and at least 200 people playing between October and April.
“After I went to Sawmill, myself and a few other people who I took with me demonstrated the sport at the Pennington Ewing Athletic Club, and they started pickleball over there,” she said. “Then we had some people who brought the sport to Nassau Tennis Club in Skillman. The rest is history. More and more organizations, private communities all had people who loved the sport and promoted the sport and helped it grow in their particular locations.”
Another site that has installed courts is Mercer County Park, where Rentschler gives two-hour lessons three times a week in the summer. Rackets are available for those who do not have them.
“We can teach you basic shots of pickleball and teach you how to move on the court and score the game,” she said. “If you have people you want to go play with, you can actually then go play a game. The more times you come, the more we can teach you, and the more you can learn and play better. It’s just a matter of how much time you want to invest in it.”
One of her pupils is 70-year-old Robbinsville resident Setsuko Kinjo, who learned about pickleball when Rentschler visited the Robbinsville Senior Center to explain it last year.
“I started reading articles and then I decided to get lessons,” Kinjo said. “I went to the Y where she teaches in January and went every week. It was quite different. It was mixed with badminton, ping pong and tennis. And I love all of that so it motivated me to learn.”
Like so many others, Kinjo was immediately grabbed by it.
“When I was young, I used to play badminton and I took lessons for tennis and ping pong and I do Tai Chi,” she said. “I like to do a lot of different things but I love to do pickleball. I meet so many nice people. It’s very comfortable. I’m only a beginner but I love it.”
What is it about pickleball?
According to Rentschler there are three specific aspects that make it so popular, especially with the over-50 crowd. It provides exercise, a chance to socialize, and a way to keep mentally sharp.
While it can be played with just singles, pickleball is usually a doubles sport. Groups of similar skill levels often set up times to meet and play, and through those matches they get to know each other. Players have come to Veterans Park from as far as Rumson. The court is smaller than tennis and because you are playing with smaller paddles and a type of wiffle ball, the competitors are more condensed and actually have conversations during games without worrying about getting drilled by a hard ball.
“Few sports are very social,” Rentschler said. “You’re playing in a very close proximity in pickleball and you’re rotating among a group of people so you get to know people and converse and have social outings afterwards.
“For the exercise, people who have gone through knee replacement surgeries or elbow problems have an easier time with pickleball because the court is shorter than the tennis court and you don’t use as much force when you hit the ball. Pickleball is a slower type of game but requires a lot of technique and skill. And it requires mental capacity besides just keeping the score and figuring out who’s serving and receiving. You have to remember the positioning and where to hit the ball. It requires mental acuity. Those three things are great for the aging population.”
Don’t be fooled, however, More and more younger people are coming out to play and it is being taught in some middle schools and high schools. Rentschler noted there is a 37-year-old father in Bordentown who plays with his two high school-aged sons. She has also observed senior citizens taking their grandchildren out to play.
“We’ve seen that many times in Florida,” Rentschler said. “When grandkids are visiting, it becomes an intergenerational sport because kids can play at an equal level as the grandparents and vice versa and they have a great time playing together.”
Believe it or not, pickleball actually began in 1965. It was created by Washington state congressman Joe Pritchard and two friends. The trio vacationed on Bainbridge Island in the summer, and Rentschler said, “They just didn’t have anything to do. There was a basketball court and ping-pong paddles and ping pong balls and they were hitting and starting to play and eventually all that became pickleball.”
The sport’s name came from Bainbridge’s wife, who was on the University of Washington crew team. She noted the last boat in a race was a mixture of positions that rode in all the other boats, so it was called the pickle boat. Since pickleball contains elements of ping pong, tennis, badminton, to a lesser degree, volleyball and bowling, it became pickleball in honor of the pickle boat.
It is similar to tennis in that one is hitting the ball over a net to win a point, but the serve is underhand and the scoring is different. It is more like volleyball, where you are playing to score a point while serving, or to regain the serve if receiving. Games are played to 11 and a team must win by two. While having experience with racket sports helps, it is not a requirement.
Once the sport caught on in the Northwest, it went down to California, spread to the western snowbird states, came up to the Midwest, expanded to the eastern snowbird states and made its way up to the Northeast.
“I say pickleball in New Jersey is in its adolescence,” Rentschler said. “It’s a 54-year-old sport, but it’s new to a large contingent of people around here, maybe in its teenage years.”
But like most teenagers, it is growing up fast. Rentschler estimates she has between 800 and 1000 email addresses in her ambassador’s account and that does not come close to including everyone who plays.
“What’s happening at Veterans Park is just a microcosm of how many players there are,” Rentschler said. “There are a lot of private, 55 and over communities starting pickleball, with people who don’t even play in public places.”
Rentschler certainly gained a convert in Kinjo.
“I’ve been telling other people about it, getting them to play,” she said. “I can see myself doing this for a long time. You have to move, it keeps you in shape. I think pickleball is a good sport.”
It certainly is a growing sport.
For more information, go online to usapa.org. For lessons, email Karin Rentschler at firstname.lastname@example.org.