(L to R) Nathaniel Powell, Rush Oak Park Hospital; Lynne Casey, Rush Oak Park Hospital; Kassie Porreca, Park Board Commissioner; Karen McMillin, pickleball organizer; Sandy Lentz, Park Board President; Jan Arnold, Park District Executive Director at the ribbon cutting for pickleball courts at Barrie Park (COurtesy Park District of Oak Park)

Over the past several years, the best doubles partner for local pickleball players has been the Park District of Oak Park. The pair collaborated well together again to create six dedicated pickleball courts at Barrie Center. 

A ribbon-cutting and reception for the courts was held on July 16.

“The park district has been very receptive and helpful regarding pickleball in Oak Park,” said Karen McMillin, a top organizer and avid player. “Jan Arnold [park district executive director] came up with the idea of having dedicated pickleball courts at the under-utilized space at Barrie. Rush Oak Park Hospital provided the windscreens, so it was a real community effort. We have six courts now and we fill them up.”

According to Diane Stanke, park district director of marketing & customer service, the property on top of the water reservoir at Barrie Center needed to be redeveloped. Due to its size and location, the area served as an ideal location for the dedicated pickleball courts.

Park district tennis courts at Maple Park, Taylor Park and Euclid Square Park are also lined for pickleball play.

The growth of pickleball has been evident in Oak Park over the last three years.

“It’s booming,” McMillin said. “There are probably over 200 players in the Oak Park area now and we have potentially 15 pickleball courts in the community.”

Fellow organizer and player David Welch, who lives in River Forest, corroborates McMillin’s estimates.

“We have over 230 people on the Oak Park Pickleball Facebook group page,” Welch said. “We also have over 200 players on the Tennis and Fitness Centre of Oak Park roster. I would say we are averaging over 30 players on Saturday morning play at Barrie Park and produce a similar turnout of players on Tuesday nights at Barrie.”

For the uninitiated, what is pickleball and what’s the attraction? 

It’s a paddle sport that mixes tennis, racquetball, badminton and ping pong. Players use special paddles and a wiffle ball.

In terms of the rules, the sport is straightforward.

Games are played to 11 with the winning point occurring on serve. The serve and return of serve have to bounce once each, and then every shot can be one bounce or a volley on the fly like tennis. Both singles and doubles matches are played (doubles is more common) on a badminton-sized court with a slightly modified tennis net. The court is often lined within an existing tennis court.

With multiple locations in Oak Park, recreational play is available daily.

Players meet every day of the week (except Sunday) between 8 and 11 a.m. at Euclid Square. Pickleball can also be played every Tuesday and Thursday (6-8 p.m.) and Sunday (4-6 p.m.) at Barrie Park. Additionally, McMillin is willing to help those who want to learn about the game each Tuesday at 9 a.m. at Barrie Park, followed by a group that plays pickleball at 10 a.m. 

“Both places are great,” Welch said about the Barrie Park and Euclid Square courts. “I prefer dedicated pickleball courts so I love Barrie Park. There is shade in the mornings at the Euclid Square courts, so players prefer that during weekday mornings. We also play Saturday mornings at Barrie Park.”

All recreational play is free and the groups are very welcoming. Paddles are available for use. 

“I really enjoy both the social and exercise benefits from pickleball,” said Welch, who has been playing the sport for five years. “I have met over 150 people in the area since playing it. I really like how pickleball provides a very positive playing experience regardless of your skill level.”

Deb Clause, an Oak Park resident, has fallen in love with the game as well.

“I’ve been playing for several years in Oak Park,” she said. “What sticks out most in my mind about pickleball is that anyone can play; and in fact, they do. We have a variety of ages, levels of play and many other differences in our group, but it’s one of the nicest and most welcoming groups out there.

“What’s better than fun exercise with great people?” she added. “It relieves stress, keeps me in shape and challenges my mind and body.”

Many of the local players strive to play year-round. 

“Unless there is snow on the ground, they go out to play at Euclid Square,” McMillin noted. 

Harsh winter weather, however, can be a deterrent, so McMillin hopes dedicated indoor pickleball courts come to fruition in the near future. 

“Let me put in a plug that we really need a community center in Oak Park,” she said. “That would provide a place for indoor pickleball. I also attended a meeting about the potential West Cook YMCA expansion so that’s definitely on the radar. Currently, the Tennis and Fitness Centre is the only indoor location in Oak Park that has hours for pickleball.”

The Roos Recreation Center in Forest Park also offers indoor pickleball hours.

While the emergence of pickleball in Oak Park has been both impressive and noticeable, the sport is attracting more interest nationally as well, particularly with a new demographic of players.

“Pickleball is catching on,” McMillin said. “I just got back from a national tournament in Pittsburgh and the age level is dropping for players. The 20- and 30-somethings are picking up the sport, which is exciting. I know one of the best players in the country right now is a 12-year-old girl.”

According to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), the sport has seen a 650 percent increase in numbers over the last six years. In its 2018 Pickleball Participant Report, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) reported pickleball currently has 3.1 million players in the United States — an increase of 12 percent over the previous year.

Additionally, the USAPA noted the number of places to play the sport has more than doubled since 2010 with over 4,000 locations. International clubs have formed in countries like Canada and India.

As for the curious name of the sport, which was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Washington, accounts vary. According to one of the sport’s three founders, Joel Pritchard, his wife started calling the game pickleball because the combination of different sports reminded her of the pickle boat in a crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. The term “pickle boat” is a reference to the last boat to return with its catch.

However, fellow founder Barney McCallum maintains the game was named after the Pritchard family’s dog, Pickles, who had a tendency to chase the ball and run off with it.

Regardless, the sport is making a name for itself in Oak Park, 

“Pickleball is addictive,” Clause said. “The more you play; the more you want to play. I encourage anyone to come out and try it.”

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