One of the first things you notice about pickleball is the sound it makes.
The sport — a cross between tennis and ping-pong with elements of badminton — is played on indoor and outdoor courts with a solid-faced paddle and a ball slightly heavier than a regular Wiffle ball. When paddle connects with ball, the resulting “pop” can be heard from far away.
At some retirement communities on the coasts, where pickleball has exploded in popularity over the past decade, the sound has been known to infuriate non-players within earshot.
But at Meadow Lane Park in west Omaha, where pickleball is inching its way toward popularity detonation, the sound is celebration. The growing community of players here — many in their 60s, 70s and 80s — describe the sport's appeal with the same irresistible word.
“It's addictive,” says Dolly Walton, 55, who retired from the U.S. Postal Service in January and started playing shortly thereafter.
It's 8:30 a.m. on a sweltering Monday, and Walton and 14 others gather at this tucked-away park near 115th and Farnam Streets, where a pair of tennis courts have been converted into four permanent pickleball courts.
The mood is sociable, with some light-hearted trash talk — a couple of septuagenarians rib an octogenarian for being senile — but competitive. When Walton, dressed in a purple T-shirt and matching tennis skirt, grabs her paddle and darts for the court, she's looking to win.
“It's you and me against the world,” she says to her match partner. “Well, not the world, just a couple punks.”
Four courts spring into action, each home to a game of doubles. At 44 feet long, a pickleball court is a little more than half the length of a tennis court, with a similar layout. One notable difference is a seven-foot area on each side of the net, a no-volley zone called “the kitchen” that prevents players from smashing the ball at the net.
The kitchen is one of the sport's equalizers, as is the court's size. Because the game doesn't require as much lateral movement, it's easier on old knees and new hips.
But it's no walk in the park, and not everyone here is a retiree.
At 38, Tim Dall is one of the youngest regulars at the pickleball courts, and by any standard, he's an athlete. Many players come to pickleball as current or former tennis players. Dall is an exception. His game is racquetball. He plays three times a week, sometimes traveling for tournaments.
On a racquetball court, Dall would expect to kill most 70-year-old opponents. He expected as much when he first stepped onto a pickleball court. But, as good as he is here, he's pushed. Walking off the court after an intense doubles match, he drips sweat, breathing heavily, and says, “How many sports can a 38-year-old play against retirees and lose a lot?”
At 80, George Stephens is one of the oldest regulars at the courts. He isn't up to Dall's level, but then he started playing just a few months ago. Now Stephens, a retired community college career counselor, shows up three or four times a week.
Even for this friendly and talkative group, he stands out. When Stephens hears a newbie will be visiting the pickleball courts, he prints out a 15-page strategy guide to give him.
“It's pared-down tennis, is what it is,” he says. “It takes quick reflexes.”
Cancer brought Stephens to this sport. In 2001, the month after he retired, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and colon cancer. He's been in and out of remission since. He knows he should stay active. More to the point, he wants to. On the court, he is the picture of good health, but deep down he suspects his cancer remains.
“I try to enjoy every day I can,” he says.
It's a fact of pickleball that almost everyone who plays becomes a recruiter, and that anyone who hasn't played is considered a convert in the making.
One day Narayan Kunwar, a 62-year-old native of Nepal who lives in the area, was walking through Meadow Lane Park. First he heard the sport, then he saw it.
Kunwar, who holds a doctorate in agricultural education from Iowa State, had never played sports. But his interest was piqued, and that's all it took for a regular to reel him in.
Now Kunwar plays every chance he gets. “And I'm good,” he says. “I'm very competitive. I don't miss any time. Only miss if I'm out of Omaha.”
In this way, he's part of a family starting to outgrow its home. On good days, all six courts at Meadow Lane Park — the four permanent surfaces and two temporary surfaces using a reconfigured tennis court — are in action. It's not unusual for players to have to sit out a round.
“That's the Catch-22,” Dall said. “I love to see it grow, but it's getting harder to play. If you can grow the sport enough so that it can grow into multiple venues, then it will be good for everyone.”
Bill Holt is on the case. The sport's most committed cheerleader in Omaha and an ambassador to the USA Pickleball Association, the 73-year-old Holt is one of a couple of snowbirds who fell for the sport in Arizona and decided to raise its profile in Omaha. They started modestly, chalking lines on a tennis court for pickup games back in 2008. A couple of years later, they petitioned the Cornhusker State Games to add pickleball, which in turn helped them persuade the Omaha Parks and Recreation Department to establish a few permanent courts in Meadow Lane Park.
Today, Pickleball Nebraska has 90 dues-paying members ($10 per year supports the group, which provides balls at all scheduled sessions) and more than 130 people on its email list. During the winter months, players move inside to Elite Sports and Fitness. These days Holt isn't just looking to add new players, he's scouting new locations.
Everyone who plays the sport loves it, Holt says, though it has one unlikely impediment: its name.
An oft-repeated myth holds that pickleball's inventor — the late U.S. Rep. Joel Pritchard of Washington state, who created the game in the 1960s as a way to entertain his kids — named the sport for the family dog, Pickles.
In fact, sport predates pup. Joan Pritchard, Joel's wife, set the record straight in a 2008 newspaper column: “The name of the game became Pickle Ball,” she wrote, “after I said it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”
Regardless of origin, the name rings weird to some people.
“I just tell them it's giant ping-pong,” says Walton, known within this community of outgoing pickleball peddlers as one of the sport's best recruiters. “The name is what deters people. It sounds so funky.”
After two hours of league play, Walton, like everyone else on the courts, is drenched in sweat. Just as she's about to leave for the day, someone convinces her — without much of a fight — to stick around for one more game.
“Everybody I tell, I make them come out, and they play, and they love it,” she says, and heads back onto the court, tapping paddles with her partner for the round, Kunwar, before leaning in to prepare for the first serve.
“Come on, Narayan, let's do it,” she says. “Make it happen.”