Pickleball craze sweeps Georgia YMCA

COLUMBUS:  It looks like tennis, but the court is half the size. The rackets aren’t rackets, but more like giant table tennis paddles. The ball isn’t made of yellow-fuzzed rubber but is instead a wiffle ball, just like the light, perforated you used when you were a kid.

What is it? Pickleball.

The sport, which is offered at the John P Thayer YMCA on 14th St. two days a week, is a combination of tennis, table tennis and badminton. It’s played with oversize paddles, a plastic ball and a low net.

The court is small, about 44 feet by 20 feet compared to the regulation tennis court size of 78 feet by 36 feet, and so the sport is often played inside.

The rules are simple: it takes 11 points to win, you have to serve to score and you have to wait for the ball to bounce after the serve and the first return.

Oh, and you have to stay out of the “kitchen,” a no-volley zone you can’t step in to return the ball unless it has bounced in there already.

At the YMCA’s gymnasium on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, three courts were set up with about 20 people either locked into a match or waiting for their turn.

Most striking was the diversity of the players. There were older members playing with much younger members, people of vastly different heights and athletic ability, and a constant flow of positive banter and encouragement among all the participants.

That’s what drew members like Alex Gallego to the sport.

“What I love about this game is that everybody can play,” he said. “You can play hard, you can play easy, and it’s a real good workout.”

It’s not just about being strong or fast either, though that helps.

“It’s actually a mental game too. It’s like a smart game, even a guy with big muscles, you can beat that,” Gallego said. “That’s the fun part.”

Cassie Lund, another member, saw others playing in the gym one day after dropping off her kids. “I went in and gave it a shot, and I love it,” she said. “This sure beats the treadmill. It’s a lot more fun.”

The YMCA was able to bring the sport to Columbus after receiving a grant from the US Pickleball Association, said Scott Balkcum, operations director for the John P Thayer YMCA.

With that grant, they were able to purchase equipment. They also brought on Austin Stewart to be an ambassador for the sport. His job is to work with other area YMCAs as well as other pickleball organizations and figure out ways to grow the sport in Columbus.

“I actually learned how to play in college, at CSU (Columbus State University).” Stewart said. “It’s moving along a lot quicker than everybody, even me, expected it was going to grow.”

People really have taken to the sport in Columbus, and now Balkcum is already thinking ahead about how it could be expanded.

“It was a real, organic, grassroots effort. Going to different churches and bringing them in, going to different community groups and mentioning it and bringing them in. And now we’ve seen that success through the fall and the winter,” Balkcum said. “Now we’re going to try to apply for a grant to bring the program to our other two facilities.”

Balkcum said the YMCA held a tournament recently where more than 50 people participated in some way, with 42 people registered to play competitively. He said there were active pickleball communities in many area cities, including LaGrange and Opelika, and wanted to make Columbus a place where regional players could come to compete and play too.

So why pickleball, and why the YMCA?

“The mission of the Y is to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build a healthy spirit, mind and body for all,” Balkcum explained.

“Pickleball certainly delivers on that promise with a healthy body. There’s a lot of mental (work) that goes into it, and that’s your mind. But just being here, part of the fellowship that has come together and started to play, that’s the spirit. That’s the mission of the Y encompassed just in one sport.”