A pickleball ‘pioneer’

Bloomington man was one of the first to promote the sport in Minnesota


By Carlienne A. Frisch


Although Jim Klaseus retired from playing pickleball two years ago, at age 85, the former Mankato resident (now living in Bloomington) has much to say about the benefits of playing the game well into retirement. In fact, he and his wife, Diane, were in their mid-60s when they began playing in 1999.


Jim Klaseus, 85, did a lot of promote pickleball in Minnesota. He recently retired from playing the sport he loved. Contributed photo

“That year, we went on a promotional trip to a retirement community in Florida,” Klaseus said, “where they were showing the game. I signed up for a lesson, so I got to hit a ball just a couple of times. The next year, we went to Arizona and really got to learn to play in a park there. After an ankle injury, Diane stopped playing, but continued supporting me in my playing.”


Klaseus has always been engaged in a variety of physical activities. At what was then Mankato High School, he played football, ran track, took part in intramural basketball and managed the first student wrestling team. After graduating in 1952, he enrolled at what was then called Mankato Teachers College (now Minnesota State University, Mankato), where he earned degrees in physical education and history. He then taught and coached in Tyler and St. James. After a move to Bloomington in 1967, he taught history and coached track and soccer at Kennedy High School until he retired in 2000.


Klaseus continued to be physically active with a group of seniors in Bloomington, playing bocce ball with a group called Born Again Jocks, whom he describes as “reborn athletes.” Although most people didn’t know what pickleball was 20 years ago, Klaseus had a ready audience when he introduced his sporting associates to pickleball.


“It was a great conversation starter, he said.”


And then, there was work to do.


“I convinced the local Parks and Recreation Department to resurface and convert one of two tennis courts into a pickleball court,” Klaseus said. “The city administration gave the department wooden paddles and a ball that resembles a wiffle ball. I put a notice in the newspaper, and retirees began coming who had played in a few southern states while on vacation.”


The idea took off, beginning with the two courts. Soon, a city council member took up the cause.


“One city council member, a nurse, was interested in healthful living,” Klaseus explained, “especially for the senior citizens who usually play pickleball. She encouraged Parks and Recreation to expand the facilities, which they did.” Bloomington now has 12 dedicated pickleball courts (including the first three in the state), part of a trend to remaking tennis courts to also accommodate pickleball in communities throughout southern Minnesota.


Jim and Diane Klaseus at a pickleball event in the early years of pickleball in Minnesota. Contributed photo

The Mankato Area Pickleball Association, founded in 2014 with 24 members, now has nearly 160. The City of Mankato converted two seldom-used tennis courts at Tourtelotte Park to six dedicated pickleball courts. The association provides a storage shed for paddles and balls, a first aid kit, an automated external defibrilator and court maintenance equipment.


Because typical pickleball players are groups of senior citizens, obviously not considered to be a neighborhood problem, the word of pickleball games spread to park and recreation departments in other communities, where courts were modified for the game. Klaseus noted that some rural Minnesotans who learned to play pickleball in other states during a winter vacation have constructed a pickleball court in their driveways.


Klaseus considered himself a recreational player.


“I never played in the leagues, but just about everybody plays in tournaments. I’ve played in senior games, but not in regional or national tournaments. I finally had to quit about two years ago because of neuropathy. I’m not steady on my feet,” he said. “Many former tennis players have moved over to pickleball because it’s more fun and easier on the body. Pickleball went from Bloomington to St. Cloud to Mankato—all over southern Minnesota. A few years ago, Minnesota State University hosted the Senior Games, which included pickleball. It’s like the movie Field of Dreams. Build it, and they will come.”


Pickleball Basics


Pickleball combines many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It is played with a paddle and a plastic ball that has holes. The game can be played as doubles or singles, both indoors or outdoors, on a badminton-sized court with a slightly modified tennis net, by players of any age level.


The history of pickleball

(Source: usapickleball.org)


Pickleball began in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle, Wash., where three men are credited with the creating the game. Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, all fathers whose children were bored with their usual summertime activities, came up with a way out of boredom for their offspring. Joan Pritchard came up with the name “pickleball” with possible reference to the thrown-together leftover non-starters in a pickle boat race crew—or for the family dog, which was named Pickles.


Pickleball has evolved from the use of handmade equipment and simple rules (which rely heavily on the rules of badminton) into a popular sport throughout the United States and Canada. The game is growing internationally as well, with countries in Europe and Asia adding pickleball courts.


Jim and Diane Klaesus of Bloomington at a pickleball event. Contributed photo

In 1976, the first known pickleball tournament in the world was held at South Center Athletic Club in Tukwilo, Wash. In 1984, the U.S. Amateur Pickleball Association was organized for the advancement of pickleball at the national level, and the first rulebook was published. Only six years later, picklebnall was being played in all 50 states. By 1999, the first pickleball internet website, Pickleball Stuff, was launched.


Despite the increasing popularity of the game, it wasn’t until 2008 that the first mass media exposure for the sport came on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” The following year, the first USA Pickleball Association National Tournament for players of all ages drew nearly 400 players from 26 states and several Canadian provinces.


The year 2010 was a landmark year worldwide for pickleball—the International Federation of Pickleball was established. Within six years, the federation had grown to 17,000 members and created a national certified referee certification program. That year, Pickleball Magazine was launched to keep those members connected with one another and aware of new possibilities. The sport’s first historical book was published in 2018, History of Pickleball, More Than 50 Years of Fun.


In 2020, the U.S. Amateur Pickleball Association was renamed USAPickleball. There are now nearly 8,500 locations on their “places to play” map, including community centers, physical education facilities and retirement communities throughout the United States.

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