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The Pickleball Craze Comes to Central New York

By Mary Beth Roach

The sport has become a raging success, especially among 55-plussers

A while ago, if anyone mentioned the word pickleball, the reaction would more than likely be, “What is pickleball?”

It was the question that Mark MacCaull asked several years ago as he was playing softball while wintering in Florida. 

He said he kept hearing this “tick, tick, tick,” he said, and he asked what that noise was. He was told that it was pickleball. 

The ticking was actually the ball, much like a Wiffle ball, being hit with the paddle-like racquet. It wasn’t long before MacCaull, a former racquetball player, got started himself.

Joe Szyikowski, Doreen Dengos and Sandy Suppes

“I fell in love with the game,” he said. Now 69, the Lakeport, Madison County, resident plays three times a week.

One of the places MacCaull plays is Skyway Park in Cicero. During a visit there earlier this summer, the pickleball courts were full of members of the CNY Pickleball Association and more players were standing on the sidelines, waiting their turn.

MacCaull and the others that are part of CNY Pickleball, a local organization of avid players, are helping to make it one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.

It’s no longer just a recreational activity with a funny name.

Since there’s no true membership in CNY Pickleball, an exact number is hard to ascertain, according to Brook Bregman, a member of the group’s executive committee. She estimates that there are about 1,000 people that she coordinates on a regular basis, with more than 80% older than 55.

According to a 2019 report by the Sports and Fitness Association, there were 3.3 million players, 1.3 million were considered “core players,” those who play eight or more times a year, and 64% of the core players are 55 years or older.

But why is this game so popular, especially among baby boomers?

“It’s for everybody. This is the place you get active instead of being a couch potato,” said Joe Szyikowski, 76, of Cicero. Now retired, Szyikowski was a high school tennis coach for 31 years and is now an instructor and ambassador for the CNY Pickleball. “You always give back to what you like. This is one thing I like, so I give back to it.”

Doreen Dengos, 66, of Cicero, retired in June of 2020, and a few months later, at the encouragement of a friend, she started lessons at Skyway Park. She got hooked, she said, and has been playing ever since.

For her, the sport is doable, with the courts smaller than tennis courts. Games are relatively short, since players only play to 11 points. In addition, Dengos said it provides her social opportunities and allows her to learn something new.

When Diane Wilson, 70, started pickleball about 18 months ago, it was a way for her to become familiar with the area after moving to the North Syracuse community. Also, she started the sport during the COVID-19 pandemic and she said it was “a godsend to be able to still do something.”

Wilson added that she finds it be a great physical game for people who are 55-plus, offering them a good aerobic activity. She also sees it as a “good mental game. It’s more strategy than power,” she said.

The sport helps players to meet the recommended physical activity for adults at 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each week, in addition to the social aspects of the game, according to Tiago Barreira, associate professor in the exercise science department at Falk College at Syracuse University. 

That pickleball’s popularity is not only seen in the number of players but in the number of facilities where it can be played. 

In Central New York, they are many indoor and outdoor courts. The websites cnypickleball.com and pickleballfire.com show courts at Elevate Fitness in Liverpool and Dewitt; the YMCA locations in Baldwinsville, Cazenovia, Fayetteville, Fulton, Manlius, Oswego, Skaneateles, and downtown Syracuse; the Magnarelli Community Center on Syracuse’s north side; CiTi BOCES in Mexico; the Cato-Meridian Community Recreation Center; Red Creek Community Center; and Lysander Park in Baldwinsville. 

In addition, the Jewish Sports and Fitness Center in Dewitt has one indoor and two outdoor courts. Some facilities may require a membership to play. Some facilities allow for non-members to play at a nominal fee.

Beginner instruction is offered at Skyway Park in Cicero on Mondays from 4 to 6 p.m., according to the cnypickleball.com website, which also has a great deal of information on upcoming events, locations, beginner play and more.

The sport has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1965, when it was created by three friends in Washington state who were looking for something to do to entertain their families one summer. There was a badminton court at the home of one friend, Joel Pritchard. But there wasn’t a full set of equipment, so they used ping-pong paddles and a plastic ball with holes. After making changes to the height of the net and moving it to an asphalt surface, the men established rules, very much like those of badminton.

How did the sport get its name? There are two stories surrounding how the unique name came about. One is that it was named after a family dog, “Pickles.” The second says the name came from Pritchard’s wife, Joan. In competitive racing, the “pickle boat” is the last one to finish and is comprised of leftover rowers who create their own team —much like the game of pickleball, which was made up of leftover equipment from other sports.

Regardless of how it got its name, nearly 60 years later, fewer are asking what pickleball is and more are taking up the sport.