The East Lansing High School (ELHS) Pickleball Club meets at the Michigan State University pickleball courts every Monday at 7 p.m. Members show up to listen to music, hang out with friends and play the sport. But the teenagers aren’t the only ones on the courts.
“It’s kinda funny how there’s usually two groups of people out on the courts,” said Frankie Calabrese Barton, a just-graduated senior from ELHS and co-president of the ELHS Pickleball Club (ELHS Pickleball Club Instagram). “There’s teenagers and college students playing and then there’s also people who are older playing. If there’s an older person who needs a partner, then someone from the club will jump in. We’re able to meet people of all ages while we play.”
The USA Pickleball website says the sport, created by three dads from Bainbridge Island, Washington, to keep their kids entertained during the summer, has taken the country by storm in the past few years. With, according to the USA Pickleball Fact Sheet, over 4 million players and over 44,000 courts across the country, the pickleball craze has officially reached East Lansing.
The Greater Lansing area has over 20 courts, ranging from Hillbrook Park to Towner Park, both in Meridian Township, to the highly-anticipated new Patriarche Park courts in East Lansing. And all ages are making their way out to play.
Adam Orange, ELHS teacher and avid pickleball player, made the transition from the tennis court to the pickleball court last August. He highlighted the multigenerational aspect of the game.
“I particularly like playing with older people, seniors and things like that,” Orange said. “It’s kind of an extension of the teaching I do during the day with younger kids, and I just enjoy that other age group.”
Many attribute the quick rise in the sports popularity to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think part of it was living in isolation during the pandemic,” Orange said. “It was one of the sports you could play safely outside of your homes and in open spaces with fresh air.”
Sally Hudgins, the USAPA Greater Lansing Pickleball Ambassador, began playing the sport about 12 years ago after retiring from teaching. She emphasized that COVID helped the sport grow.
“During COVID, I think people were in a place where they needed the comradery of others because they were so closed in and everything else was uncertain,” Hudgins said. “But if people could go out to the courts and play outdoors where it was safe, that was like a new normal for them.”
Another reason so many people have started playing the sport is because it’s easy to learn and very accessible.
“Within 10 minutes of basic instruction, you can be playing the game,” Orange said.
It is also very easy to find places to play throughout the country by utilizing the USA Pickleball Organization’s Places2Play feature.
Most parks have open play. Open play is “an opportunity for anybody who is a beginner to an advanced beginner to an advanced player, “Orange said. “It’s a series of hours that each pickleball park or location sets up and anybody is welcome to those. It’s a very inclusive idea.”
When you arrive at the pickleball courts, you put your paddle on a rack or write your name on a board. You are then called up to play with the person whose name or paddle is next to your paddle.
For those who would like to learn more about the game before starting to play, classes are also taught at many locations. Hudgins teaches lessons at Towner Park on Towner Road in Meridian Township every morning of the week.
Hudgins and Sandy Sweckard began teaching pickleball lessons eight years ago at the Michigan Athletic Club (MAC) in order to grow local interest. They set up rotations and built their player numbers up to 100-120 individuals.
“We did what teachers do,” Hudgins said. “We invited people, we didn’t charge anything, it was all because we wanted to grow the sport.”
Hudgins said she loves teaching the sport and wants to do it for as long as she can.
An additional aspect of the sport that makes it interesting is the inclusivity it fosters.
“You find that the pickleball court is kind of an equalizer,” Orange said. “You’re playing with professionals who have retired from law or medicine, you’re playing with city workers, you’re playing with people who are in their 80s, 70s and 60s.”
Orange also said pickleball courts are starting to see more minority players or players who don’t speak English.
“This kind of linguistic and cultural mix that’s being added to the pickleball community, at least in the Greater Lansing Area, is really refreshing,” he said.
The ELHS Pickleball Club took the focus on inclusivity a step further and hosted a tournament last October in collaboration with the school’s UNICEF Club. The event was a way to raise money for the larger UNICEF organization.
“That was a really cool way we could play pickleball but make something bigger out of it and help people more than ourselves,” pickleball club co-president Calabrese Barton said.
With more and more people playing pickleball in the area, the City of East Lansing is opening new and improved pickleball courts.
The Patriarche Park courts officially reopen Thursday (June 15) with 10 new pickleball courts. Along with the courts, there were also many other park upgrades. A new tennis court has been added, the basketball courts were re-done, more accessible walkways were installed, along with new fencing, a shade structure and a shed.
The courts are already in use and were jampacked the day after the nets went up on June 8.
Gary Beaudoin, who was instrumental in helping bring pickleball to East Lansing and started playing the sport a decade ago, emphasized much of the money raised by a nonprofit group and funds from the city also went to the other additions than just the courts.
“They had to tear out all of the fencing and tear out all of the old asphalt,” Beaudoin said. “When they got all of that torn out, they realized that some of the soil wasn’t quite where it should be, so they [the city] had to find money in their contingency fund to improve the soil under the courts.”
Beaudoin, along with others such as Bernie Peltier, Sue Mills, Wendy Wilmers Longpre and other pickleball enthusiasts worked with the city to make this possible for East Lansing.
“All along, the city has been very, very, very cooperating and taking advice from the pickleball players in the area,” Beaudoin said..
The highly-anticipated Patriarche Park pickleball facility is to formally open at 2 p.m. Thursday (June 15). There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring speakers recognizing those who were instrumental in making the pickleball project happen.
East Lansing Info is working on an updated explanation of the funding for the recently completed Patriarche Park pickleball courts. Watch for an AskELi in the very near future.