What do Bill Gates, a seventh grader from Murray Hill, the Kardashians and a San Marco business owner with bad knees have in common?
At this point you’re probably thinking one of two things: Who cares about the Kardashians or what in the heck is pickleball? Assuming the first question is rhetorical, the answer is: a sport. But pickleball’s not just any sport: It’s the fastest growing sport in the country with an estimated 4.8 million players in 2021.
To those unfamiliar with pickleball, it’s a mashup of badminton, ping-pong and tennis. It’s played on a flat, hard surface the size of a badminton court, and players use solid paddles, similar to those in ping-pong to hit a ball over a net like tennis. Pickleball can be played by two or four people, and a typical game lasts 15 minutes. The game itself is fairly simple and can be picked up quickly, which is part of its appeal. The fact that it requires no athletic experience and is suitable for all ages and fitness levels makes it more accessible than the vast majority of sports, hence its popularity.
Andy Zarka was thrilled to discover pickleball in 2019, having given up running and cycling because of his bad knees. “Pickleball is perfect because it keeps me active and feeds my competitive spirit,” said the former Wolfson High School basketball standout and lifelong sports fan. It also fulfills the sense of camaraderie he felt being on a team and playing pick up basketball in college. “The social aspect of pickleball is appealing to a lot of people,” Zarka added. “The majority of pickleball players are very friendly and helpful, and they are passionate growing the sport they love so much.”
Zarka is such a fan he became certified by the USA Pickleball Association as an instructor and hosts free clinics for beginners (paddles and balls included). And as the ultimate expression of his obsession, he opened an entire shop dedicated to pickleball in San Marco called Jax Pickleball Store.
Dylan Walters’ introduction to pickleball was more like divine intervention.
“Me and my friend were bored one day. We found [his parents’] paddles in the garage and started hitting the balls around,” Walters said. “His dad heard us and came out and asked if we wanted to learn how to play.”
The 12-year-old was a natural and has since gotten his own paddle but had to find a new partner, he said, since his friend would rather play video games. “I like it because you can get out your frustrations and run around but not get too tired,” he said. “It’s cool that kids have an activity that they can do with adults.” He’s currently trying to convert his dad, an avid tennis player.
Fortunately for Walters, youth pickleball in Jacksonville has gotten a big boost with the launch of the First Dink Foundation. Similar to First Tee, the non-profit organization, which held its first clinic in August, teaches kids how to play the game while also encouraging socialization and building important skills like communication, teamwork, responsibility, patience and respect.
Executive Director Sam Veal, who first learned of pickleball four years ago while in Maryland for a wedding (and was immediately “hooked”), started First Dink in October 2021 because he saw the potential and felt “the community needed it.” (FYI, a dink is a type of shot in pickleball.)
“Kids need to get away from the screens [computers, phones, TVs] and get outside and find other ways to occupy their brains,” he said. “Pickleball is a fast-paced, healthy activity … [and] teaches life skills for kids to grow and develop and become productive and responsible members of society.”
Another sign pickleball is booming locally is the appearance of pickleball courts, especially in the historic neighborhoods. Thanks to campaigning by addicts like Zarka, the City of Jacksonville has converted tennis courts at Southside Tennis Complex in San Marco and Boone Park in Avondale into pickleball courts and installed six new courts at Ringhaver Park across from NAS Jacksonville.
For those who prefer to play in a temperature-controlled environment, indoor courts are available at the Ortega Life Center at Ortega Methodist Church (for a nominal fee) and Winston Family YMCA in Riverside (gym membership required). And there’s always the option of creating a pop-up pickleball court in a parking lot, driveway or even a patio with a portable net and tape to mark the lines.
Whether it’s for exercise, socializing or just trying something different, playing pickleball can be a real life changer. Just be warned, it can to be highly addictive and may lead to bad puns. That said, get out there and “relish pickleball.”
By Kerry Speckman
Resident Community News
Andy Zarka, Dylan Walters, First Dink, Jax Pickleball Store, Pickleball, Sam Veal
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