Utah Pickleball Championships Show Explosion of a Game with Roots in SunRiver St. George

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Over 200 competitors played in the Utah's First State Pickleball Champsionship - a racquet sport combining elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis. The game has exploded in popularity, especially among active seniors who enjoy the action and competition. Active adult retirement communities, such as SunRiver St. George, are hotbeds for this rapidly growing sport.

Pickleball is an important part of the SunRiver St. George active adult community.

“We host two Open Tournaments, which are open to players from surrounding cities, states and all age groups; the Huntsman World Senior Games during October; and ten official Club events throughout the year.

With the Utah State Pickleball Championship concluding last week in St. George with over 200 competitors, the SunRiver Pickleball club is pleased to welcome the state's growing pickleball community to St. George.

The championship tournament was held at the Little Valley Pickleball Complex with Mens', Women's, Mixed and Youth Singles and Doubles brackets all participating. State Champions were named in each bracket at the conclusion of the tournament.

“We are thrilled to have the pickleball state championship being hosted in St. George,” said Anne Nielsen, current SunRiver St. George Pickleball Club President. “Hosting the championship not only brings continued visibility to our sport, but also celebrates the roots pickleball has within our community.”

The explosion of pickleball, a racquet sport combining elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis, has gained mainstream popularity in recent years – particularly within active adult communities like SunRiver St. George.

The game, played on a court with the dimensions of a doubles badminton court, appears at first glance to be very similar to tennis. However, pickleball's unique differences make it more accessible to a wider audience of athletes both young and old.

According the the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), pickleball was invented after during the summer of 1965, when Congressman Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell, a successful businessman, returned to Pritchard’s home from a golf outing on Bainbridge Island, WA to find their families sitting around with nothing to do. The property had an old badminton court so Pritchard and Bell looked for some badminton equipment and could not find a full set of rackets. They improvised, cutting shafts of the damaged rackets and found a perforated plastic ball. The rackets didn’t work very well, so the dads created four wood paddles, similar to today’s wood paddles. At first they placed the net at badminton height of 60 inches and volleyed the ball over the net. As the weekend progressed, the players found that the ball bounced well on the asphalt surface and soon the net was lowered to 36 inches. The following weekend, Barney McCallum was introduced to the game at Pritchard’s home. Soon, the three men created rules, relying heavily on badminton. They kept in mind the original purpose, which was to provide a game that the whole family could play together. The Pritchards had a cocker spaniel named Pickles, who became interested in this new game. Whenever a ball would come his way, he would take the ball and run off with it, because you see, it was Pickle’s ball. And that is how the game got its name.

The sport of pickleball has a rich history within the SunRiver St. George active adult community. Pickleball was brought to SunRiver in 2003 by Pickleball Ambassador, Don Odle.

“Back then, the game was originally played on the SunRiver tennis courts with tape marking the shape and lines of the pickleball court,” explained Anne Nielsen, current SunRiver St. George Pickleball Club President. In those early days, the Club membership consisted of only a handful of SunRiver St. George residents and a few more players from the City of St. George.

As the game gained popularity and the number of enthusiastic players – both residents and non-residents – increased, it became clear that permanent pickleball courts were needed within the community. Darcy Stewart, Managing Partner of SunRiver St. George, agreed to amend his master plan and build four courts for the quickly growing SunRiver pickleball club.

However, the excitement over this new sport didn't stop there. As the popularity of the sport, and the SunRiver community, continued to grow, four more courts were added. Finally in 2007, two additional courts and a multi-purpose court were built. Lights were added thanks to the fundraising efforts of the Club and non-members. Now, the SunRiver St. George pickleball courts host the annual Huntsman World Senior Games pickleball competition, attracting players from around the world.

The success of Pickleball at SunRiver has shown the City of St. George as well as other private residential communities and resorts the benefits of having quality Pickleball courts available for use.     

“The availability of pickleball courts and a functioning club is now a major amenity that attracts new residents to our community,” explained Nielsen. “The Huntsman World Senior Games, beginning in 2007, bring millions of dollars into the economic base of Washington County. The impact of the sport on the local community only continues to benefit our beautiful city.”

Because of the tremendous growth of Pickleball in Southern Utah, the City of St. George has recently begun a Pickleball Complex at Little Valley. Twelve of the 24 courts have already been completed, and were used for play during the 2012 Huntsman Senior Games. There were a total of 1393 games played over five days during the Huntsman Games, on 32 courts with volunteer referees.

Today, the SunRiver St. George Pickleball Club has a membership of over 260 players, with ages ranging from mid-50s to early 90s, according to Nielsen. “We host two Open Tournaments, which are open to players from surrounding cities, states and all age groups; the Huntsman World Senior Games during October; and ten official Club events throughout the year,” she said. Pickleball at SunRiver provides opportunities for both social play and competitive play, and really helps bring the residents together. Experienced players teach the game to new players and give instruction to those who wish to improve their games. We believe that we can help the game of Pickleball to grow by helping each other to grow.”

In addition to their on-court activities, the Club is very involved in both SunRiver St. George and local communities.

“These folks are a generous and supportive group,” said Nielsen. “We improve our courts with the cooperation of the Home Owners Association and assist in maintaining the landscape that surrounds the pickleball area. This year, we donated to the Veterans Honor Park in SunRiver, assisted our fellow players to raise funds for the Little Valley Pickleball Complex, and support the Utah Food Bank with donations of food and volunteer service.”

The SunRiver Pickleball Club will continue to be ambassadors to grow the sport of pickleball both within the SunRiver community and throughout Southern Utah.

“Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the United States,” said Nielsen. “And in the state of Utah, it got part of its start right here in SunRiver.”

The Club looks forward to the continued expansion of the sport into the athletic departments of local middle schools and high schools, with the hope that the sport will begin to gain a new generation of fans.

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Derek Rowley
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