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Pickleball Gains Traction In Terre Haute

Rex Lawler is affectionately referred to by some as one of the founding fathers of pickleball in Terre Haute, Indiana. Lawler's love affair with the sport, which is booming among seniors, began when he was introduced to it a number of years ago while at the World Senior Games in St. George, Utah.

He was there competing in racquetball when he had a chance encounter with pickleball.

"One of the wives of one of the racquetball players was playing pickleball and we finally went out to check into it to see what it was and finally got a chance to give it a try and I thought, man, that is a fun game," Lawler says.

When Lawler got back to Terre Haute and Lawler Sports, the racket sports store that he opened back in 1975, he put in orders for pickleball equipment immediately. He hoped that he would be able to spread his newborn enthusiasm for the sport to his community.

Soon thereafter, Lawler encountered his friend, Paul Barksdale, who had shared Lawler's desire to introduce the game to the community. Barksdale became enamored with pickleball while spending his winters in Tucson, Arizona, a hotbed for pickleball.

Once the duo's efforts began, it didn't take long for pickleball to catch on. Current Vice President of the Greater Terre Haute Pickleball Association Phil Adler is living proof of this. Though he believed his first invite to be a joke.

"And she said to me, ‘Hey, Phil, why don't you come out and play pickleball?' and of course like most people I said, ‘What is this? Is this some kind of a joke?,'" Adler says. "She said, ‘No. You're such a good tennis player and a ping pong player. You'd love the game. It'd be fun.' I started playing for about two hours, and I came back on a Sunday and the next day and did the same thing. And on Monday morning, I showed up at Rex's sporting goods store and bought myself a paddle."

He says he's been hooked ever since.

But What Is It?

In layman's terms, it's tennis played with a wooden paddle and a whiffle ball. The court is a third of the size and serves are always underhand.

According to Adler, it's the fastest growing sport in America. Demographically, slightly more men play than women. It's a 54% to 46% split and 68% of the players are 60 years or older.

Donetta Cothran is a professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University who is a self-described pickleball missionary. She says the sport teaches valuable lessons about lifelong fitness and is points out that its growth has taken an interesting shape over the past few years.

"Its growth started in the senior market and came backwards, which is different than most sports which start in the junior market and go forth like soccer," Cothran says. "We created a soccer nation with eleven year-olds, not with adult soccer leagues. Pickleball's kind of taken that reverse trend with seniors leading the popularity way."

Cothran says a major reason for this unusual trend is that pickleball, like golf, is a lifelong game.

"Pickleball, in my opinion, is one that you can take from 8 to 80, and the sport stays the same and the challenges can grow with you or increase with you," Cothran says.

New Courts

Adler described the old courts as a mess. Nets were sagging down and the playing surface was riddled with cracks.

"The old courts were a mess. Nets were sagging down and the playing surface was riddled with cracks."

"You couldn't have played tennis here if you wanted to," Adler says. "So, we had made a proposal to the park board to redo this facility and turn it into a pickleball facility."

The city accepted the proposal and a joint effort between the city and the Pickleball Association resulted in what Adler now proudly calls "one of the best facilities in the Midwest." The courts at Brittle Bank Park were patched up, received new coats of paint and were given proper pickleball dimensions.

Since the facility was re-done, many seniors have flocked to the courts and found a new way to stay active.

"What we want is not [the activity that gives you] the maximum benefit, but what's something that you'll actually do," Cothran says. "If you'll actually do pickleball, what we know is 30 minutes incrementally - it's not even 30 continuous minutes - 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there and you're going to see amazing health benefits."

A Pickleball Community

While the physical benefits to participants are numerous, the largest benefits of pickleball to the players may be social.

"Some studies show that the biggest indicator of quality and length of life actually aren't physiological measurements, they're social measurements," Cothran says. "If it's a pickleball league, if it's a church, if it's a crochet club, if you can get involved in that and get out and stay connected, you're going to have truly life-long benefits."

After hanging around the Terre Haute pickleball courts for an afternoon and talking to the people who have made the community around the sport what it is, you can sense the social benefit that comes along with the camaraderie of the sport.

"It's kind of been like a big party," Lawler says. "We even have one guy that comes out here in the summertime in the evenings and he'll make ice cream and bring drinks and things. Everybody just has a good time."

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