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Popularity of low-impact, good-exercise sport growing in Mankato area

A pickleball court is much smaller than a tennis court but still gives participants a good workout. Contributed photo

A pickleball court is much smaller than a tennis court but still gives participants a good workout. Contributed photo

On a Mankato pickleball court there’s a man whose passion for the game is helping lead the way to the rejuvenation of an old sport.

John Sandry, 69, is one of three founders, including Sandy Buckley and Earle Peters, who started the Mankato Area Pickleball Association (MAPA) about three years ago.

Sandry became interested in pickleball around 2010 when he was introduced to the game during his winter months in Arizona. “I got hooked on the game immediately. It’s really big in the retirement communities and it’s the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. right now,” he said. “I’ve seen people over 90 years old playing the game in Arizona.”

According to the USA Pickleball Association, current estimates list more than 400,000 players actively playing pickleball ,with facilities located in all 50 states.

In Mankato, Sandry and friends thought it would be nice to have some outdoor courts dedicated to playing pickleball. That prompted them to form MAPA in an attempt to convince city officials to reconfigure two slightly used tennis courts into pickleball dimensions.

“The city council considered our request and approved it in May 2014, and by that fall, we were pleasantly surprised to have six beautiful lighted courts,” Sandry explained. “Now the interest in pickleball has continued to grow, and we’ve had all six courts full of 24 players at one time.

“The game is becoming more popular because people are finding out it’s a fun way to become an active senior involved in a low-impact, good-exercise activity,” he added. “Younger players are also noticing and getting introduced to the game by playing pickleball in middle or high school physical education classes.”

Sandry commented that a couple of 80 year olds play pickleball in Mankato, and he teaches the game to youth in grades 3-6 in a pickleball clinic sponsored by Mankato Public Schools Community Education and Recreation.

Sandry said he’s appreciative of the support he’s received from the community education and recreation departments as he, Buckley and Peters have been involved with teaching pickleball lessons during June, July and August to newcomers.

In addition, as a member of the Mankato Lifelong Learners national organization, Sandry earlier this year conducted two pickleball classes, indoors and out, to 14 people who wanted to learn the game.

Sandry mentioned that anyone interested in joining MAPA can contact him at 507-381-8948 for an application form. Applications are also usually available during Tuesday or Thursday night open pickleball play at the Touretllotte Pickleball Courts located at N. Second St. and E. Ruby St. in Mankato beginning at 4 p.m. on those days. Open pickleball hours are also held Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings at the courts starting at 9 a.m. for all skill levels.

“We have no organized leagues, but our games can still get quite competitive,” Sandry stated. “But really our mission is just to get people to move off the couch and come out to the courts and play.

“Of course you don’t have to be a member to play pickleball on our courts, but membership dues help us provide balls, and eventually, we want to purchase some additional equipment, like benches, a leaf blower and maybe build a storage shed or put up some fence screening to reduce the wind,” Sandry explained.

“Another of the long-term goals we have is to purchase some dividers to prevent balls from rolling onto adjoining courts while they’re being used by other players,” he stated. “We’re excited that this could become a premier facility for Mankato.”

Thirty four players of all ages came together in Mankato the other day to play some pickleball in the Mankato Area Pickleball Association. The group is growing as more people learn about the unique game. Contributed photo by John Sandry.

Thirty four players of all ages came together in Mankato the other day to play some pickleball in the Mankato Area Pickleball Association. The group is growing as more people learn about the unique game. Contributed photo by John Sandry.

The Game

Sandry said playing pickleball is like combining ping pong, tennis and badminton all into one. “I guess you could say it’s like ping pong on steroids,” he joked. “The ball is hard plastic, a little smaller than a wiffle ball with smaller holes for outdoors and bigger holes in the ball for indoor games. It travels at about one-third the speed of a tennis ball when hit by a paddle.”

When playing pickleball, each player needs a paddle which is smaller than a tennis racquet but larger than a ping pong paddle. Sandry explained that paddles were only made from wood when the game was invented in 1965.

However, today’s paddles have improved and are primarily made of lightweight composite materials, like aluminum, fiberglass or graphite. Sandry said he’s seeing more local sporting goods stores beginning to stock additional pickleball equipment in response to increased demand.

The pickleball court is the same size as a doubles badminton court and measures 20×44 feet. In pickleball, the same court is used for both singles and doubles play. The net is 36 inches high at the sidelines and 34 inches in the middle. The court has boundary lines similar to a tennis court, with right and left service courts. There is a 7-foot nonvolley zone in front of the net (commonly referred to as the “kitchen”).

There are several key rules in pickleball that help make the game more accessible. In tennis, and many other net sports, games are often won or lost by the power of the serve. Sandry says 70 percent of pickleball points scored are from your opponents’ mistakes.

In pickleball, the ball must bounce once on each side before volleys are allowed. This opens the game to more players and extends play for added fun. Games are played to a winning score of 11, and a player or team has to win by two points, with most matches taking about 15 minutes to complete.

Balls are served with an underhand motion stroke from below the waist level. Players can hit a variety of strategic high soft serve, power serve or soft angle serves.

Brief History

Pickleball was created in the mid 1960s on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Wash., by three dads – Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum as a backyard game for their children.

How pickleball got its name is a debated tall-tale topic. But a favorite story says that Pickles, the Pritchard’s family dog, would chase after errant backyard shots and then hide them in the bushes – hence “Pickle-ball” which was later shortened to the namesake “Pickleball.” However, others claim the name was derived from the Pritchard family maritime pursuits rather than its canine pet.

Although Sandry says most players enjoy playing pickleball outdoors, MAPA does have two converted basketball courts used for indoor play during winter months. “The Mankato YMCA started some indoor pickleball courts, and I know other surrounding towns, like Lake Crystal, St. Peter, New Ulm, Albert Lea and Waseca, have players and courts too.”

As an advocate for pickleball, Sandry wants to see the game grow for all ages. He’s a retired postal employee and 20-year Navy veteran and said he’ll travel to other towns if asked to demonstrate the game to groups of potential players.

Last month MAPA held their first-time sponsored tournament in Mankato for mixed doubles and men’s and women’s doubles for above age 55 and below age 55 divisions, with nearly 100 players participating.

“Every year Minnesota has its state senior games, and this year the National Senior Games will be held in Bloomington,” Sandry said. “We have a half dozen people from Mankato who have qualified and will be playing in July.”

Pickleball was officially incorporated in 1972 to give the game a proper way to keep up with the demand for paddles, balls, nets and other gear. The game has continued to expand since then around the U.S., Canada and in other countries.

Sandry believes pickleball is not just an old sport for seniors. “Our mission is to get people of all ages involved as a way to get some good exercise that is not too strenuous and provides a sociable opportunity to meet new people.

“In our club we have a couple of players who have had two knee replacements, and they’re still playing, so you can see it’s difficult not to like an easy game where you don’t necessarily have to do a lot of running and have fun playing,” Sandry concluded.

For more information about Mankato pickleball go to the pickleball or

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