Everyone’s pickle

(First published in the December 19, 2018 issue of City Pages)

Get your game on, because pickleball is part of the Badger State Winter Games that start in a few weeks


Pickleball pro Dave Weinbach visited Wausau this summer to hold a training session for local players.

A few years ago Dave Landretti was walking through the Aspirus YMCA and saw a group of people playing a game he’d never seen before. “I asked my wife, ‘what the heck is that?’” he says. It turns out the folks in the gym were playing a sport called pickleball and as he stood and watched, they invited him in to give it a try. “I was hooked from that second,” he says. Landretti now plays pickleball almost daily. “I do it for the physical activity and the friendship.”

There are ten million pickleball players in the world, eight million of them in the United States. “And there are over 200 now in the surrounding Wausau area,” says Mark Strehlow, board member and play director for the Greater Wausau Area Pickleball Club. “It’s the fastest growing sport in the United States and worldwide, and one day it may even appear in the Olympics.”

In the meantime, pickleball is a sport featured in the upcoming Badger State Winter Games. Those competitions take place Feb. 23-24 on the indoor courts of Sentry World in Stevens Point.

Want to brush up on your skills, or maybe even learn it in time for Badger Games? The YMCA’s Aspirus Branch in Weston is holding pickleball clinics Feb. 2 at 9 am and 1 pm, plus Play With a Pro sessions that day.

Pickleball got its start in the United States in Bainbridge Island, Washington back in 1965. Locally, a group of four people began playing in 2004 at Mayoral Park in Schofield and it has grown ever since.

Pickleball is a marriage between tennis (played on a court), table tennis (played with hard paddles on a table) and badminton. The basic rules are quite similar to table tennis and court tennis and games can be played either as doubles or singles with rule variations for both respectively. Pickleball has its own whiffleball-like ball, and there is a 7-foot no-volley zone where players may not touch while volleying. The no-volley zone prevents players from smashing the ball at the net, like a tennis player might.

The Wausau Area Pickleball Club schedules open play, with some games happening multiple times a day. In summer there were often 30 or more individuals who showed up for open play at Marathon Park, says Strehlow. That location can only accommodate 12 players at a time and there were anywhere between eight and twenty players, says Strehlow.

There are five pickleball courts at Marathon Park, four at 3M park and a few others in the area, including courts inside the Aspirus YMCA and the Greenback Field House, Strehlow says. The club is hoping to get more courts added to Marathon Park to accommodate numbers. “We want to have nine total courts,” he says. “Our hope is to get into the county budget. Cost would be about $90,000 to continue with the court expansion,” he says.

What makes pickleball such a draw is that almost any age and ability can join in, he says. “The size of the court helps. Pickleball is all about balance, control and placement of the ball and age or athletic ability is evened out,” he says. “An older player that has good control can beat a younger player with power.”

A couple of local players have been at some big tournaments, says Strehlow and the club has held many events and round robins.

Dave Weinbach from Madison (a five time national champion, six time US Open champion and winner of 80 gold medals in competition) came to Wausau this summer to hold a training session for the Wausau club members. Weinbach started playing in Surprise, Arizona twelve years ago when he was visiting his parents. “Back then there wasn’t a place to play in Madison,” he says. “It’s grown tremendously… Anybody can play, all you need is a paddle and a ball.”

• Register soon for Badger State Games. Alpine skiing, eGames and archery begin in early January, followed by Nordic skiing, bowling, cornhole (bean bag toss), curling and more in later January and February. See BadgerStateGames.org for the full list of sports and registration details.

• For details on the YMCA’s pickleball clinics, see woodsonymca.com.

• For more information on the Greater Wausau Area Pickleball Club, visit their Facebook page.