Can You Pickle That?

Pickle Ball has landed on the East Coast, and it's a pretty big Dill.

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To the uninitiated, “pickleball” might sound some weird appetizer your grandmother brings to family picnics. Or a gala for gherkin lovers. 

What it actually is, however, is a sport. And not just any sport but one of the fastest growing recreational sports in the U.S. with almost 3.5 million regular players, a 650% increase since 2013.

So how is it that a game made up in the ‘60s  by a couple of dads to entertain their bored kids become the biggest thing in sports in years, yet so many people have never even heard of it?

Often described as a combination of tennis, ping-pong and badminton, pickleball is played on a hard, flat surface that resembles a mini-tennis court using solid paddles, typically made of wood, composite or graphite, to hit plastic perforated balls (think Wiffle balls) across a net. Sure, it might not sound like the most exciting sport in the world, but what makes pickleball so popular is its accessibility—and inclusivity.

With only 1,500 square feet of total playing space—compared to a 2,808-square-foot tennis court—the game is inherently more appealing to individuals who aren’t exactly in their athletic prime and/or those with physical limitations (having at least one bum knee is practically a requirement for taking up the sport). 

It’s easy to learn for beginners but can also be fast-paced and highly-competitive for more experienced players. The financial investment is minimal with paddles starting around $30 (be advised: you get what you pay for), a couple of bucks for balls and some court shoes. And no fancy club membership required. (Bonus: it’s the perfect sport during a pandemic since players are usually at least six feet apart from each other, even when playing with a partner.)

Verna Griffin became acquainted with the sport 12 years ago in South Florida, and it was, ahem, lob at first sight (heads up: picklers love wordplay). Unfortunately, pickleball hadn’t yet caught on in Northeast Florida, so she had to buy the equipment, as well as learn the rules, lingo and netiquette all online. She also had to find a place to play.

The Neptune Beach resident,  however, was undeterred and made a pact with three friends to meet at a nearby city park and bring a friend. Within a month, 45 people were playing pickleball every Saturday at the Isle of Palms Park in San Pablo, even more impressive considering there were no actual pickleball courts there.

Since then, she and other volunteers (launched a website for all things related to Northeast Florida pickleball— pickleballbythesea.com—while building the sport’s participation at public parks to an estimated 4,000. She has also become a certified pickleball instructor, a USA Pickleball ambassador and the de facto Godmother of Pickleball in Jacksonville.

“There are so many benefits to [playing] pickleball. It’s a multi-generational game. We have players from 8 to 96,” Griffin said. “It has health benefits because any kind of movement is so important.” One player, she said, has lost 60 pounds playing. And then there’s the social aspect.

Perhaps the best example of pickleball’s popularity in Jacksonville, not to mention the obsessiveness of its players, is Andy Zarka.

After giving up running (because bad knees) and cycling (boring), he discovered pickleball in 2019 and found it the perfect way to stay active, feed his competitive spirit and rekindle the sense of camaraderie he found playing pick-up basketball in high school and college. But playing locally four times a week wasn’t enough to satisfy his craving. 

“In a caffeine-filled, sleepless night, I decided I was going to open a pickleball store,” he recalled. “So I texted a friend [in the business] and asked him if it was the worst idea he ever heard. He agreed but said I should do it anyway.”

Zarka, who also owns European Street Cafe, opened Jax Pickleball in San Marco last year. The sports boutique is the only store in North Florida dedicated specifically to pickleball carrying everything from equipment and apparel to bumper stickers and nutritional supplements (Pickleball Cocktail, anyone?). A self-admitted pickleball addict, he said he just wants to see the game grow. “I see it’s benefit socially and healthwise,” he said.

Suffice it to say, thanks to Griffin and Zarka, pickleball is a pretty big dill. 

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