- Associated Press - Saturday, September 16, 2017

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) - On Tuesdays, Kat Smalley makes a habit out of getting to Cresthaven Park’s pickle ball courts early.

As a part of the Decatur Pickleball group, she and a handful of other members are meeting for their weekly evening of friendly competition. The fun typically doesn’t begin until an hour after Smalley arrives.

“I like to get here before the others so I can warm up and set things up the way I like,” Smalley, 37, said while making sure the courts were well-stocked with the distinct plastic balls, similar to wiffle balls, that are used for the sport.

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By 7:30 p.m., the summer air is filled with dull popping noises, as those balls are sent back and forth over a net by people wielding over-sized paddles.

Since Decatur Pickleball was founded in 2014, popularity of the sport has blossomed locally. While more than 100 people are associated with the group today, co-founder Margaret Hickman said that it originally consisted of just four players.

“We all never showed up at once,” she said. “It was always like, ‘Oh, can you play? Can you play?’ Then in the following year, at the end of the summer, was when these (Cresthaven) courts had been built by the park district.”

Hickman said that after the Decatur Park District invested about $30,000 in transforming Cresthaven Park’s old and underused tennis courts into new pickle ball courts, the group’s popularity began to skyrocket.

They started scheduling regular weekly meet times at both Cresthaven and the Decatur Family YMCA’s indoor courts, and created a Facebook page to post updates and forge a budding community between the area’s most faithful pickle ball enthusiasts.

“After that, it’s just kind of grown every year. It’s grown a lot every year after that,” Hickman said.

Created in the 1950s, the sport is a hybrid of tennis, badminton and pingpong that has become so popular in the United States, that it even has its own governing body - the United States of America Pickleball Association.

Both Hickman and Janet Hirst, another co-founder of the Decatur Pickleball group, serve as ambassadors for the USAPA, and have taken it upon themselves to increase the sport’s presence throughout the city.

Hirst first started playing pickle ball in 2015, and credits the game’s accessibility for people of all ages as one of the main sources of its appeal.

“As you get older, you can’t do as much as you used to be able to do,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve always been athletic, and I enjoy getting back into athletics. This is my outlet.”

There have never been any age or skill requirements to play with Decatur Pickleball, Hickman said. Anyone can join in on the fun, even if they don’t have any equipment.

“We always bring extra paddles with us,” Hickman said.

The group’s laid-back, inclusive atmosphere attracts a diverse crowd to the courts, ranging from novices to more seasoned players, like Smalley.

A competitor by nature, Smalley first picked up a pickle ball paddle in 2014, after a previous injury forced her to retire from her beloved softball - a period in her life which she refers to as her “Dark Ages.”

“It was just enough challenge, and I was having a lot of fun moving around,” Smalley said of pickle ball. “It was the thing that got me mobile again.”

Smalley’s game improved, which led her to start competing in pickle ball tournaments throughout the region. Recently, her solid play garnered her a 5.0 player rating from the USAPA.

Not only is this the highest rating that any USAPA player can receive, but Smalley is also the first woman in the state of Illinois to receive the honor.

“It was really exciting. I just stared at (the email) for a really long time,” she said.

One day, Smalley hopes that she’ll be able to play against some of the top professional players at the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships, but until then, she’ll keep showing up early to play until the lights go out at Cresthaven Park.

“As awesome as the 5.0 rating is, I think that the big story here is how much pickle ball is growing in Decatur,” Smalley said. “We’re lucky to have a community that’s so involved and wants to learn about it.”

Hickman and Hirst agree. They said the group’s steady growth excites them about the sport’s future in Decatur, and focused on not only finding more places to play in the city, but also introducing pickle ball to more youth.

“When I first played it, it sounded complicated,” Natalie Alexander, 8, said. “But once I got the hang of it, I really liked it.”

After learning of the game two years ago, Natalie has become Decatur Pickleball’s youngest regular player. Hickman and Hirst said she’s a quick learner, who regularly holds her own against the group’s older members.

Natalie’s zeal for the sport excites Hickman and Hirst. They said they’re looking forward to watching her grow as a pickle ball player, and advocate for the sport just as they do now.

“You can say that you like beating the old people if you want,” Hirst teased Natalie, as she thought about her favorite things about pickle ball.

“I don’t do that,” she responded. “I’m not that good.”

“She’ll get there,” Hickman said.


Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, https://bit.ly/2xl4mYj


Information from: Herald & Review, https://www.herald-review.com

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