It’s only the fastest growing sport in America (and it’s not named after a pickle)
When Neil Friedenberg put out fliers and posters announcing a pickleball clinic at Kolbach Park in Port Washington, the first question some people had was, “What’s pickleball?”
“Some people say, ‘Oh, that’s when you’re caught between two bases and the other players try to tag you out’ or ‘That’s what we learned in grade school.’ Some think it has something to do with Claussen pickles,” said Friedenberg, a transplant from Seattle who grew up playing the game that most people here never heard of.
But mention pickleball to the 33-year-old and his eyes light up. He’s quick to point out it’s the fastest-growing sport in America. People of almost any age can play it and be competitive, he said.
“I love it,” Friedenberg said. “It’s very addictive. The great thing is you improve very quickly.”
The game is named after its mascot, a cocker spaniel named Pickles who loved to chase balls.
The game supposedly was invented in 1965 by two desperate fathers who set up a badminton court for their bored children while vacationing near Puget Sound in British Columbia.
Unable to find shuttlecocks or birdies, the dads substituted a Wiffle ball.
When the kids complained they couldn’t hit the ball far enough with the badminton rackets, the fathers cut paddles from plywood.
They lowered the net so the younger children could hit the ball over, made up rules to take away age advantages, and the game was born.
The kids dubbed it pickleball because Pickles kept chasing the ball.
The families perfected the game and introduced it to their friends.
It quickly took off in the Seattle area and soon spread throughout the state of Washington. It is popular in retirement communities in Arizona and Florida, where pickleball tournaments are held.
Friedenberg was about 12 when his father Mark taught him to play.
His father, a retired computer programmer in Seattle, started playing the game in the 1980s when pickleball courts were installed in his company’s fitness center. He played with co-workers during lunch hours.
His father took the game to a higher level, competing in and winning tournaments. He acquired Pro-Lite Sports, which makes paddles and other equipment, and built up the business, designing new paddles,
experimenting with composite and graphite materials and different weights and shapes.
The paddles are sold worldwide, Friedenberg said.
“My father, who’s 65, still beats the pants off me, and I’m a good player,” he said. “He allows me one mercy point, then racks up 11 straight points (the number needed to win a game). I try to use my power, but he uses finesse.”
His father is the U.S. doubles pickleball champion and former president of the USA Pickleball Association, which sponsors tournaments and promotes the game.
In August, Friedenberg opened Pro-Lite Pickleball Shop from his home, determined to bring the sport to the area.
Friedenberg is a substitute teacher in the Port Washington-Saukville School District, the junior varsity tennis coach at Port Washington High School, teaches sand volleyball summer school classes at Thomas
Jefferson Middle School and is a tennis instructor for the Port Washington Parks and Recreation Department.
He convinced the department to install two pickleball courts at Kolbach Park. The USA Pickleball Association provided $250 to purchase two portable nets that can be used outdoors or indoors. Friedenberg provides the balls and paddles, which cost between $47 and $63.
Friedenberg hopes to find a gym where pickleball can be played in winter.
He didn’t realize he was so addicted to the sport until he moved to Wisconsin to pursue a physical education and health degree at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. It is where he met his wife Carrie, who is from Port Washington.
When he visited her parents Bob and Joan Priesler, he fell in love with the city.
“I saw the lake and I knew this is where we would live,” he said. “I’ve always lived around water.”
Carrie is a special-education teacher at Saukville Elementary School. She plays pickleball, but not to the extent her husband does.
Her parents are learning the game.
“It is fun,” Mrs. Priesler said.
“You get quite a workout,” her husband added.
Port resident Karen Gazzana plays pickleball two to three times a week in Ocala, Fla., where she lives during the cold months.
“We stand in line to wait for a court,” Gazzana said. “Most of our tennis courts have been converted into pickleball courts because it’s easier to play. We sometimes shorten the games to seven points so more people can use the courts.”
Friedenberg, who puts on clinics throughout the area, said the most rewarding thing for him is to see people who are unsure of themselves gain confidence as they master the game.
“As a phy-ed teacher, you emphasize lifelong sports, and this is an excellent lifelong sport,” he said. “The other day I had a call from a guy in Colorado who said he played tennis for years but can’t play anymore. He
said, ‘I played pickleball for the first time today and I want to play more. What kind of paddle do you recommend?’
“I’ve had people say pickleball saved their lives because they had become so sedentary and now they’re active again.”
Friedenberg wants to develop a program that pairs middle-school students with senior-citizen partners.
“It’s such a fun, social game,” he said. “What better way to promote communication between generations than to play together?”
A free pickleball clinic that was rained out last Saturday has been rescheduled for 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 30, at the pickleball courts at Kolbach Park in Port Washington. For more information, call the Port Washington Parks and Recreation Department at 284-5881 or Friedenberg at (262) 844-8236.
Neil Friedenberg demonstrated pickleball. Photo by Sam Arendt