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By LILLI DWYER
Pickleball, a seemingly simple paddle game that was invented in 1965 as a children’s backyard entertainment, has been rapidly gaining popularity in the past several years. An example of the growing phenomenon is the first ever Charity Pickleball Tournament. It took place at the new Winona Lake Pickleball Courts Saturday, Sept. 9.
Pickleball came to the Warsaw area in an official capacity in 2010, according to Kayla Metzger, who discovered the game with her late husband, Mike Metzger, during a trip to Florida. The Metzgers began playing pickleball with a small group, the Pickleball Phanatics, at Lucerne Park Senior Center and continued to move to larger venues as they gained new players. Since 2022, they have been playing at Gordon Recreational Center at Grace College.
The Phanatics also play in the community’s local parks, which reflect the demand for playing space. There are now four pickleball courts at Kelly Park, which opened five years ago, and another four at Winona Lake Park that opened just this year. According to tournament Director David Thieme, 60 players visit a court on any given day.
Thieme cites word of mouth and social media as ways pickleball has become widely known, but he also credits the COVID-19 pandemic with boosting the game’s popularity.
“I think COVID brought out some of that … It helped because you couldn’t do anything else and people were so confined, and so people were allowed to at least do that in most communities.” Thieme said.
Pickleball is a no-contact sport and players stand apart from each other on the court, so it was socially distanced enough that people could use it as a safe method of exercise and socializing. In fact, the social aspect seems to be a vital part of what makes the sport so popular.
Thieme allowed that while exercise is a great benefit of playing the sport, a less discussed aspect of the game is the friends that people make through playing. “It’s probably people that you would’ve never met in your life,” Thieme said.
When it comes to who exactly is playing, those in the Pickleball Phanatics said it’s anyone from ages eight to 80.
“Early on it was older people. … But I think that’s one of the things, why it’s grown so much, it appeals to multiple generations,” Thieme explained. “I’ve been on a court before with a grandpa, his son and granddaughters. That’s one of the things, it’s kind of bringing people together.”
There were many players traveling in order to play in the Winona Lake tournament, the profits of which will go to benefit Warsaw’s Combined Community Services.
“We have quite a few from Goshen, Elkhart, that area, but the farthest one that I know of is Indianapolis,” said Thieme.
There are other tournaments cropping up around the state as well, including at long-standing events, like the South Whitley Fall Festival and the Marshall County Blueberry Festival. Thieme said there is “no doubt” pickleball could become an American pastime.
The goal now is to have the pickleball tournament on an annual basis. With 173 players signed up for this year’s game, Thieme said he sees no reason not to do it again, and he thinks “pickleball is going to keep growing in this community and every other community.”