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Pickleball Courts Essential at Snowbird RV Parks

Night pickleball games are popular at Palm Creek

When retiree Wayne Spong unwrapped a package of pickleball paddles from his wife a few years ago at Christmas, he found it appropriate since they had just purchased an RV site in Florida. After all, pickleball has practically become a requisite for the senior RVer. 

“The truth is, when my wife bought the paddles, neither of us had any idea if we’d even like the sport,” he said, laughing. “But once we started hitting the ball around, we were hooked. It’s a social game and it’s easy for us ‘old’ people to play.”

Spong said the ever-popular sport is not just for seniors, noting he knows of players as young as 20-somethings in Florida.

For seniors, though, the sport is appealing because it’s not as demanding as tennis. A game that began in 1965 is today becoming the preferred court sport among this demographic. It’s easy to learn and even easier on the joints, allowing them to remain active.

“A lot of former tennis and racquetball players find this game easier to play well as they age,” Spong said. “Pickleball is really helping to promote healthy aging.”

“One of the reasons the sport continues to be embraced by retirees is because most of the shots are at waist level, so if you have arthritis and have had to give up tennis, pickleball is a great alternative and provides really good exercise,” explained Brian Schaeffer, executive director of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO). 

A pickleball court is about a quarter of the size of a tennis court and the whiffle-type ball doesn’t travel as fast, so there isn’t as much chance for injury. The highest pickleball speed recorded is 50 mph, compared to a tennis ball that can reach double that, Spong said.

Now a true “pickleballer,” Spong is a volunteer ambassador with the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) and the volunteer pickleball coordinator at Cypress Trail RV Park in Fort Myers, Fla., where he teaches lessons on strategy. He also manages a Cypress Trail Pickleball Community Facebook page, where he posts instructional videos and photos.

Around 50 people now regularly play the sport at Cypress Trail, which hosts both social and competitive tournaments. In January the park brought in coach Matthew Klein, an expert pickleball player, to teach lessons. The sport can be played as singles or doubles, but doubles is the most popular among seniors, according to Spong.

Pickleball is a big draw at Cypress Trail

Pickleball Courts a Must-Have

The USAPA estimates 66%of pickleball players are age 60-plus. Thousands are RVing retirees exchanging their tennis gear for lighter weight pickleball equipment, so pickleball courts are a must-have at RV parks.

RV parks and resorts across the sunbelt continue efforts to convert tennis courts into pickleball courts and add new pickleball courts to accommodate rapidly increasing numbers of players, according to Jo Ann Mickelson, executive director of the Arizona Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds.

Resorts that don’t have enough courts — or any at all — are even subject to losing business from the sport’s devotees.

One such place is Arizona’s Pueblo El Mirage RV & Golf Resort, which despite having pickleball courts lost out to resorts that had more.

“We didn’t have enough courts, so we lost business,” said Vickie Jepperson, Pueblo El Mirage Resort manager.

The resort alleviated the situation by adding 16 more pickleball courts and has reaped the benefits of a steady stream of reservations from lovers of the sport.

“At this time our pickleball group consists of 467 players,” Jepperson said. “We have a great group of players and volunteers, with players ranging from beginners to top standings.”

The resort is hosting for the fourth year the Grand Canyon State Games, a five-day tournament beginning Feb. 22.

“Players from throughout the U.S. come and enjoy the experience,” Jepperson said.

Hot Spring Village in Arkansas not only realized pickleball courts are a must-have; they may be starting a new trend with plans to establish a dedicated clubhouse for its players. The community’s pickleball club is its most popular, with 300 members and growing. The grounds contain eight courts, some of which were former tennis courts. Players participate in tournaments, open play and leagues, and courts are lighted for night use. The 26,000-acre recreation and retirement community made up of homes and RV sites provides a great place to learn the sport with onsite lessons.

Pickleball Heaven

Swept up in the pickleball phenomenon, Sun Communities Inc.’s 300-acre Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort in Casa Grande, Ariz., reconfigured its tennis courts to accommodate pickleball players. But as the sport grew in popularity, Sun made a significant investment and now Palm Creek has 32 dedicated pickleball courts.

“We caught the attention of the USAPA and they contacted us to see if we would be interested in helping sponsor some national events,” explained Kevin Flynn, general manager. “The last two years in November we have hosted tournaments at the national level. We also host some local area tournaments as well as in-house tournaments. Many players come here and stay for a week, hang out in their RVs, and participate in the tournaments.”

Some 900 people are in the Palm Creek Pickleball Club, a diverse group ranging from beginners to tournament level players. And many snowbirds flock to Palm Creek namely for its pickleball community.

“We have folks that come here for the winter specifically for pickleball,” Flynn said.

Flynn sees pickleball as a great transition from tennis into another very active sport.

“The ball is the size of a baseball, but is more like a whiffle ball, and the paddles are larger than a paddleball but smaller than a tennis racquet,” he said. “They still get a lot of exercise and obviously the court is smaller, so from the standpoint of building them you can fit more pickleball courts into an area.”

Donna Christiansen is president of the Palm Creek Pickleball Club and with 900 members, this voluntary position is basically a full-time job.

“Some are discovering what Palm Creek has and are traveling farther, like from New England and Canada, drawn to both the pickleball and other amenities here,” Christiansen said. “Every year we see the sport grow.”

Christiansen and her husband Vance have witnessed this growth from the beginning, having lived at the resort before the first pickleball court existed on the grounds.

“We were part of the initial startup around 2003,” she said. “That was very early for parks like this to even have pickleball. We managed to talk the park administration into letting us have one of the tennis courts, which they promptly converted into four pickleball courts for us. Over time it grew from there.”

The couple arrived at the park in 2001 with the plan to travel, but they liked it so much they haven’t left. They have a space at Palm Creek while splitting time in Montana. From the start, pickleball has been a part of their retired life.

“For us, we had just retired so we were looking for something to do together instead of separate hobbies or sports,” Christiansen said. “We tried golf and were terrible at it. I’m not athletic at all, but my husband is and we found pickleball is a sport we love and can play together.”

The couple takes the sport back with them to Montana, because they just have to keep playing.

“When you become a player there is a certain addiction to it,” Christiansen said. “Almost everyone who is truly dedicated plays on a daily basis.”

The growth of pickleball at Palm Creek is due to the joint efforts of park administrators and dedicated volunteers, who do all the work of the club. The park supplies them with a beautiful facility and upgrades, while the club members generally take care of the maintenance and day-to-day operations of the complex. Christiansen helps to coordinate lessons and tournaments.

“It takes a village to run it,” she said. “I am the executive board member and every day we look for new and innovative ways to improve.”

Through Palm Creek’s facilities and hosting tournaments, the park has developed an international reputation.

“The USAPA tournament has gotten us a lot of publicity and now we’re referred to as ‘Pickleball Heaven,’” Christiansen said.

—Leanne Phillips

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