It's an emerging sport with a funny name and an equally dedicated following. Call it pickleball passion.
The intriguing sport of pickleball is catching on in communities throughout northwest Ohio. The game is a cross between badminton, tennis, and Ping-Pong. Players use a large paddle to hit a baseball-sized, hard plastic Wiffle ball across a modified tennis court.
West Toledoan Marsha Koch has become one of the sport's best players as well as one of its biggest advocates.
Koch, 47, said pickleball is a paddle sport for all ages and skill levels. Primarily a doubles sports, Koch said it provides a good form of exercise in a competitive and fun environment.
“It's a super social sport,” Koch said. “It has elements of power to it, but it's also strategy and placement. And the teamwork is something I really enjoy. You have to have a great partner to set up points. It has so many different facets to it.”
The sport has become particularly popular in retirement communities. But Koch said pickleball is gaining popularity among all age groups.
“You don't need to be in Olympic shape. You don't have to be a big jock,” Koch said. “You can compete at any age from 8 to 80. It's multigenerational. You can play this at all skill levels.”
Koch is co-ambassador of the Toledo Pickleball Club, along with Connie Mierzejewski of Rossford. The two promoters of the sport estimate that more than 130 players are now competing in northwest Ohio.
Mierzejewski, 68, said she picked up the sport about five years ago while visiting a friend in Florida.
“What I liked about it was the pace of the game,” Mierzejewski said. “It caught me right away because of the speed of the game. It's hard to explain. You have hand-eye coordination, and there is a physicality to it. The game will hook people the first time out.”
A total of 13 courts dedicated to pickleball have sprung up around the area. There are six, fenced-in courts at the home of the Toledo Pickleball Club in Rossford. Koch said there also are three courts in Holland, two in the Waterside retirement community in Maumee, and others in Monclova and Sylvania.
Although relatively new to this area, pickleball was invented by a congressman and a businessman in 1965. The pair used badminton as the basis of the game in a backyard in Seattle with the congressman's family.
The origin of the name is debated. Some say it's named after the family dog, Pickles. Others say the wife of the creator named it because the combination of different sports reminded her of the “pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”
More than 100,000 people play the sport, according to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA). Koch said the number of courts in the country has grown from 700 to 2,600 since 2010.
Koch credited Mike and JoAnne Tressler for bringing pickleball to the Toledo area. Mike Tressler, a former staff writer at The Blade, introduced the game to local YMCAs in 2008.
“I'm so grateful to them. They are the original ambassadors,” Koch said. “They introduced it to Toledo.”
Koch, a former college softball player, has become the area's most accomplished player. Koch won gold and silver medals in June in the top level at a national tournament. She teamed with her doubles partner, Jessica LeMire, at the Melba Bishop Classic in Oceanside, Calif.
Koch, who was a catcher at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, has achieved pickleball's highest ranking with her partner LeMire, who is from Grand Rapids, Mich. The duo are classified as 5.0, which is similar to rankings in tennis.
“I hesitate talking about that stuff because I don't feel like a pro,” said Koch, who discovered the sport in 2010 while on a trip to Arizona. “You have to have a good partner.”
Koch travels with LeMire, who is 24, to compete in regional tournaments that are sanctioned by the USAPA.
“The USAPA sets guidelines and detailed rankings based on skill,” she said.
Koch said she hopes to promote the growth of the sport locally by emphasizing it's low cost and accessibility. Paddles cost between $60 to $100. The durable balls are $2 apiece.
“The seniors have embraced it,” Mierzejewski said. “We want to grow the sport and get younger people involved. We're going into the schools and showing the kids how to play. Once you learn, you'll want to come back and play more.”
The Toledo Pickleball Club also offers free training sessions on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.
“Drop in. All you need is a pair of tennis shoes,” Koch said.
The club is holding its first tournament on Aug. 23-24. More info can be found at Toledopickleball.com.
“There are so many places to play. It's exploding,” Koch said.