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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Pickleball creates competition, community in Alachua County

As pickleball emerges, residents show their love for the sport

Abby Bennett plays pickleball on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.
Abby Bennett plays pickleball on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

No matter the weather, Alachua County residents can be seen on bright-blue courts in town with tennis shoes laced up, a paddle in one hand and a bright-yellow, plastic ball in the other. On the court, competition can be fierce. Off the court, the community is welcoming.

Pickleball, a sport very similar to tennis, has taken the world by storm. First originating from boredom and badminton equipment in 1965, pickleball has now emerged as the fastest-growing sport with a 40% increase in popularity in recent years.

While beginner levels of pickleball are more common, there are also varying levels of advancement within the sport, said Danny Wuerffel, a former Gators quarterback, the 1996 Heisman Trophy Winner and father to UF Club Pickleball player Jonah Wuerffel.

“Don’t tell the Gator football fans, but pickleball is probably my favorite sport I’ve ever played,” Danny Wuerffel said. 

After a prolific career in football, Danny Wuerffel looks forward to his upcoming 50th birthday in May, and will be eligible to play tournaments in the senior pickleball league. 

Pickleball was somewhat of a gift to Danny Wuerffel, one which he found after his retirement from football, as it allows him a strong sense of community and friends as well as remaining active, Jonah Wuerffel said. 

“He’s never been happier to get older because then he can play in the senior group,” Jonah Wuerffel said. 

The game itself is much easier to pick up than tennis, he said.

“Even if you’re a grandpa or a little kid who has never played, it’s easy to start playing, and that’s the best part,” Jonah Wuerffel said. 

Pickleball players aim to keep a pickleball, similar to a wiffleball, inside the lines of a court, while hitting diagonally to teams of two in order to reach 11 points to win.

Beyond the physical game of pickleball, the community surrounding it is incredibly welcoming. Random people will say, “Hey, come play with us,” and then turn into lifelong best friends, Jonah Wuerffel said. 

“Pickleball is more of a community where you can just be down to earth,” he said. 

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Local clubs are also starting to recognize pickleball as a real sport, one young children want to learn and play. 

Pickleball wasn’t a very demanding sport when Jonah Wuerffel started as a YMCA pickleball instructor before the coronavirus pandemic, and it was oftentimes hard to find anyone who wanted lessons, he said. However, now he sees entire summer camps devoted to pickleball, speaking to the emergence and popularity of the sport.

At the Alachua County Sports and Event Center, pickleball is in higher demand, said Mary Rossow, pickleball coordinator and USA Pickleball ambassador for the county. 

Radd Sports initially reached out to Rossow before the event center was open, saying it was bombarded with phone calls and emails from players in the pickleball community wanting more dedicated courts, rather than multi-use courts, which tennis and basketball players can use. 

“We only have like four dedicated, public pickleball courts in all of Alachua County, and that’s at Northside,” Rossow said. 

While pickleball can be played on multi-use courts around the county, other sports players using these courts can make it hard to find a physical space to play. 

“When you go play, and there’s tennis players or basketball players, you have to be respectful of each other,” she said. “So it doesn’t always work out that you’re able to play.” 

However, with her help, they were able to bring more dedicated courts to the county, as well as initiatives to bring pickleball into schools, specifically gym classes. 

Two years ago, Rossow went into and gave a pickleball demonstration to Alachua County Public Schools, and is now focusing on promoting pickleball to be included in instruction within public school systems as a part of gym classes.

More recently, at a Valentine’s Day program, she invited parents to play pickleball with their children at the event center. Afterward, her inbox was flooded with messages from parents saying things like, “That was so much fun,” and, “Can we do that again?” she said. 

As the sport continues to grow, even universities are starting to recognize it. The UF Club Pickleball team won silver in an Indiana pickleball tournament in January with around 26 different schools playing, said Adele Dorion, member of the UF Club Pickleball team. 

Several of these schools at the tournament had official, university-recognized pickleball teams, unlike UF’s, which is just a club, she said. 

Dorion’s pickleball journey originated from tennis. She realized, “Nobody wants to play tennis anymore,” and because of this found her love for pickleball and the people she’s met because of it.

Pickleball has allowed her to meet and play with different kinds of people who she would never have met, in the span of one practice, she said. 

As pickleball continues to grow with its popularity and players, whether that be with a former football star, university students or a pickleball coach, Mary Rossow said one thing is for certain — pickleball “isn’t going to go away, it’s only going to expand.”

Contact Kairi Lowery at klowery@alligator.org. Follow her on X @kairiloweryy.

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Kairi Lowery

Kairi Lowery is a second-year journalism major and a metro general assignment reporter for The Alligator. When she's not writing you can find her lounging on the beach with a book or collecting vinyls. 


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