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‘Caters to every age group’: The sport that is taking Utah by storm

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POMPANO BEACH, FLORIDA – MARCH 11: Bob Savar (3rd L) teaches a class in the game pickleball to a group fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at the John Knox Village Continuing Care Retirement Community on March 11, 2021 in Pompano Beach, Florida. The community held a mask-less pickleball lesson for the first time after 90% of the residents in the community were vaccinated against COVID-19. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Utah (ABC4) – “In short, the reason it’s taking off is it’s easy to learn. It’s inexpensive. It fits ages eight years old to 80.”

That’s how Mike Nielsen, AAU Pickleball Executive Director, explains pickleball’s rise to fame in Utah. The 76-year-old says he first started playing the sport eight years ago and fell in love with it.

Courtesy: Murray City

When he first started playing, Nielsen says the sport was “really associated with the senior set.”

But that is beginning to change.

“Saturday, when I was at the courts, I’d say there were kids from 10 years old to 12 years old to young couples in their 20s. I was the absolute oldest, about 40 years older than anyone else on the courts,” he says. “So it really fits all ages.”

The best thing about pickleball is it’s so easy and quick to learn, Nielsen tells ABC4.

“It’s just a lot of fun. It’s real competitive. Players are only 14 feet apart, so you need to be quick. The ball is going from five miles to 50 miles per hour in a tenth of a second,” he explains.

And the sport is very inclusive, he states.

“With Pickleball, there’s a general protocol that you work with beginners. You mix in with other people. There’s just a feeling of trying to get everybody involved. There’s a camaraderie among experienced players that want to teach beginners how to play, and so you’ll see people standing by the court talking to them about the rules, helping them belong and feel like they’re welcome,” Nielsen says. “There’s a general welcoming feel in Pickleball that I don’t see in a lot of other sports.”

He says he’s also done a clinic in Las Vegas for veterans with PTSD. He bought 20 paddles for 10 or 15 dollars.

“There were some wonderful people down there who taught them. It was just so fantastic,” he says.

According to Nielsen, it’s “crazy” how fast Pickleball is growing in popularity in Utah.

“Most of the cities and counties that I’ve been dealing with are changing from tennis courts to Pickleball just because of the demand. Eight years ago, we had eight courts at the Mount Ogden Golf Course. Now we have about 500 courts in Northern Utah, and last year we got 100 brand new courts- this is a big investment,” he says. “The cities are just investing tons of money, and all the courts are packed.”

He says cities like Kaysville, Farmington, Woods Cross City, Spanish Fork, and Brigham City have all recently installed Pickleball courts, which are often full to capacity.

“I think it’s going to continue to grow. I think because it really touches the senior community and the kids. I’ve seen kids from Viewmont High School cutting pickleball paddles out of plywood in shop class,” he states.

Courtesy: Riverton City

Nielsen says he has lost 70 pounds playing the game, which he describes as an offshoot of tennis.

He says he wasn’t interested in the game at first because of it’s strange name. “What kind of a name is this for a sport?” he says.

According to Nielsen, the makers of the sport decided to name it after their dog, who was named Pickles and always ran off with the ball. And the makers of the sport were children who created the game out of boredom, using ping pong paddles, a Badminton net, and a whiffle ball that they had on hand, he explains.

Another theory of the game’s namesake is that it was called pickleball due to the combination of different sports reminding some of a pickle boat in crew, where rowers were chosen from those from other boats, according to usapickleball.org.

For those interested in getting involved with the sport, he recommends checking with their city and county, which he says are becoming more and more likely to offer inexpensive lessons. They have wooden paddles that people can play with.

Nielsen says the sport is played on a court the size of a badminton court, which makes it inexpensive for cities to build. About four Pickleball courts could fit in one tennis court, he says. Players use an oversized ping pong paddle and a whiffle ball, he says.

“It caters to every age group. It’s inexpensive. It’s very fast,” he states.

Interested parties can also contact Nielson at (801) 540-7272 for information on how to get involved in Pickleball in your area.

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