By Christy Swift

It’s a sport that’s grown 650% in the last handful of years. Anyone can play it, from children to seniors.

It’s affordable, accessible, and easy to learn.  It’s pickleball!

Pickleball is best described as a mix between tennis, racquetball, and ping pong. Players volley a wiffle ball back and forth with a special paddle using nets and courts that are smaller than those used for tennis. It’s commonly played in doubles, and games are short— lasting about 15 minutes each. And because its popularity has skyrocketed, courts are popping up all over, in both public and private parks

Pickleball in Tanglewood

One Heartland man who’s got his finger on the pickleball zeitgeist is Jay Bowers, chairman of the Pickleball Club in Tanglewood, a housing development and RV park in Sebring. “It’s a private club for residents only. We have over 200 members. It’s pretty popular. Right now is when we’re really starting to gear up now that the snowbirds are coming back,” Bowers says.

Bowers, who discovered the sport in 2017, said he got invited to play by some people he met at an RV park in New Hampshire and “got hooked.”

“That’s how it goes,” he says. “People play one time and then they want to play all the time.”

While pickleball used to be associated with people of retirement age, that’s not the case anymore. All ages are picking up the sport, from kids to retirees and even octogenarians. “We have people in their eighties who play every day,” Bowers says.

Tanglewood’s pickleball community had humble beginnings. It started about 15 years ago in their “bash area,” an outdoor stage and concrete pad used for events and celebrations. “They painted the pickleball lines on that and got a portable net,” Bowers said. “People were always crashing into the picnic tables.”

As the sport grew in popularity, the owners of the park were approached, and four pickleball courts were put in. Eventually those weren’t enough and they doubled the capacity to eight courts. Tanglewood now hosts Heartland Senior Games’ annual pickleball tournament and a few of their own. “We do mixed doubles. It’s a lot of fun and we spend a whole day doing that.”„

Intrigued yet?

So, what’s the magic that’s making pickleball one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S.? Bowers has a few ideas. “It’s a great social activity. It’s something that everybody can play, all skill levels, all age groups.” People can pick it up really quickly, and it’s not as physically exerting as tennis, he adds. “You don’t spend as much time chasing the ball as you do in tennis.”

Bowers says getting started is easy. You need a good pair of trainers, a pickleball paddle you can buy at your local Wal-mart or Dick’s Sporting Goods store, and (maybe) a pickleball (many places provide them). Reach out to a local club to meet other pickleball players who can teach you how to play, or read the official rules for yourself at www. USA Pickleball also maintains a list of pickleball clubs on their website.

Other communities and RV parks in Highlands County have their own private courts, as well, according to Jeff Lindskoog, USA Pickleball’s Ambassador for Highlands County and a board member of the Sebring Pickleball Club. As far as courts open to the public, those are limited, but he’s working on that.

“We’d like to make Highlands County a pickleball destination,” he said. But in order to do that, you need a venue. The City of Sebring, Highlands County Board of Commissioners, and Highlands County Tourist Development Council have all had pickleball on their agendas lately, but Lindskoog said the only project that’s definitely moving forward at present is in Spring Lake, where plans are underway to build pickleball courts in their community center. “The preliminary plan is to have eight courts with the hope of expanding to 16 at some point,” Lindskoog says.

Bartow Pickleball Warriors

Bartow resident Teresa Wilson began playing pickleball at the beginning of the year and picked it up quickly. “I was a newbie. I had never played it before and I’ve gotten pretty good at it,” she says. “It’s not hard to learn.” Their group, unofficially dubbed the Bartow Fort Meade Pickleball Warriors, communicates through a Facebook page and Whatsapp.

“We have people in their 70s all the way to 10 years old. We have teenagers from the high school that join us. That’s what I love. It brings people together just for fun.” Her group plays on four free courts at Nye Jordan Park. If too many people show up, they do a rotation. One indoor court is also available at the Polk Street Community Center, she says.

Pickleball in the Heartland

Looking for places to play in your area? The following is a shortlist of pickleball courts across the Heartland and details about their use. This list is by no means extensive.

The Sun ‘N Lake Golf Club in Sebring offers free pickleball court use to members and is open to the public for a fee.

Lake Placid
Sun n Lakes Community has tennis courts that are also marked for pickleball. You must pay for an entry card in order to drive into the park.

The Genesis Center has indoor pickleball on a fixed schedule. Players are asked to make a nominal donation of $2 or $3.

Nye Jordan Park has four free outdoor courts.

The Polk Street Community Center has one indoor court. Limited hours.

Kelly Recreation Complex has outdoor courts for free during daylight hours. Indoor courts are $2 per person per session, Monday-Friday 8AM to 12 Noon.

No reservations are necessary, and paddles and balls are available for use. Discounted pickleball passes are available for purchase.

Woodlake Park has six unlighted pickleball courts that are free to the public from dawn to dusk.

Camino Grove Park offers pickleball free with limited hours. Six pickleball courts are marked on three tennis courts and are available to players with their own portable nets on a first come, first serve basis.

If you’re tempted to check out what the hype is all about, the pickleball community would encourage you to give it a try! Bowers recently taught his nine-year-old grandson to play. Spoiler alert: he did great!