With summer upon us, people are looking for things to do outdoors.
For a large contingent of local sports enthusiasts, that means enjoying some time on the courts — the pickleball courts.
Pickleball is widely considered to be one of the fastest growing sports in all of the United States. One needs only a plastic wiffle ball, a paddle, and a good attitude to play.
New pickleball courts were installed at Cheshire Park last year and, since then, they have been packed with players eager to get in on the new activity that is taking the town by storm.
“I used to play tennis, but pickleball is, in my opinion, a way-more engaging sport,” said Sharon Houck. “Pickleball is so much fun — we laugh, we have a genuinely good time, no matter what the score is.”
Houck is the owner of Cheshire-based CT Image Apparel, but she admits that, if she could, she would like to spend all her time on the courts.
“For people who are retired or semi-retired, it’s an amazing sport because it doesn’t require a lot of running around, and I don’t have to cover the entire court, like I would in tennis,” Houck added. “I started playing a few years ago and I’ve just loved it since.”
While similar to tennis, the sport is actually more of a combination of racquetball and table tennis, where participants can play in doubles or singles with a specialized paddle and ball. The court is much smaller than a traditional tennis court, which makes it easier to play practically anywhere.
“My wife and I actually started playing in our driveway during the pandemic and our neighbors were just staring at us,” laughed Yuri Kaplan. “But it really is one of the most social sports I have ever played. The people you meet are amazing and you can really get to know each other during the game.”
Kaplan admits that, while he and his wife are not always on the same team, it’s one of the few sports they can enjoy together.
“My wife doesn’t like to ride bikes, but I do … this is something we can do together and actually enjoy together while getting a good workout, which doesn’t always happen,” he explained. “We first started playing at the YMCA. I saw the sign up for it and told my wife that we just had to go, and now we’ve been playing it ever since.”
For most players, it’s not about who is better or who wins. Instead, the focus for the players is on just having a good time.
“We all laugh and have just the best time,” said Linda Gee, another local player. “We don’t even keep score sometimes and we just hang out. I was even playing this sport during the pandemic in the winter — a few of us were out there shoveling the courts! I would have never guessed I would do something like that just to play a game, but there I was.”
Gee and her other teammates have even traveled around the state to play pickleball wherever and whenever it’s available.
“We’ve been to Harrison Park in Wallingford, we sometimes go down to Durham, we’ll play in Cheshire — we will play anywhere,” Gee added. “And there is always someone you know or someone with a smiling face there to welcome you in. Where else do you get that kind of feeling?”
Throughout the pandemic, many players used pickleball as a way to stay in shape and stay connected with their friends. The activity was deemed safe since players are spaced more than six feet apart during matches.
“During the pandemic, it was one of the only ways you could see people who didn’t live inside your house,” Gee said. “It was so good to get up and get out of my house.”
The sport became so popular in Cheshire that during the spring, the Cheshire Parks and Recreation Department began two pickleball leagues, both of which filled up instantly with dedicated players.
“It’s definitely a challenging sport, but it’s very engaging,” said Houck. “It’s also not just a sport for us retirees, as young people have been getting into it more and more and it’s just great to see everyone get better and improve on their games.”
Pickleball players are rated on a scale from one to five, with a five designating a professional-level player and a one indicating a beginner. At the Cheshire pickleball courts, however, it’s an even playing field.
“We all sort of play with one another,” Houck explained. “It doesn’t matter to us if you’re good — the good players will play with the beginners and vice versa. It’s about the community.”
Players of all ages and abilities arrive at the pickleball courts in Cheshire to enjoy the fun and can usually find a mentor to help them out if need be.
“It’s a social sport through and through, and if you are not in it to have fun and help each other out, then there is no reason to play,” Kaplan added.
Cheshire Parks and Recreation Director John Gawlak announced at a recent Town Council Budget meeting that Parks & Rec has been looking into adding lights to the new courts in the coming year to extend playtime for Cheshire residents.
“We’ve had really an overwhelming response to pickleball and we definitely want to get lights out there so that they can play at other times, because the courts are getting very crowded in the mornings,” Gawlak said.