Easy to pick up and even easier to hook, pickleball grows in Alaska

It didn’t take long for Marty Freeman to get hooked.

Freeman, who competed in the Midnight Sun Pickleball Spring Thaw Tournament last weekend in Eagle River, is one of Alaska’s newest entrants to pickleball, a sport that has enjoyed substantial growth during the last years.

“Everybody starts out as an instant drug addict,” said Freeman, who has been playing for two years. “It’s not progressive.”

Pickleball is a hybrid racquet sport that is a cross between badminton, tennis, and table tennis, or pingpong. The sport took off in part because of its accessibility.

“It’s good for all skill levels, so anyone at any level, any age, any ability can play pickleball and enjoy it,” Jill Lutz said. “That’s the beauty of the sport and why it’s so popular.”

Lutz and her husband, Rob, who are the founders and principal instructors of Midnight Sun Pickleball, have been driving the growth of the sport in Alaska.

“People have helped us, so now it’s our turn to help others and expose them to the sport,” said Rob Lutz.

Serves at pickleball are sneaky. Freeman said keeping the ball and playing and the likelihood of winning points on a serve is very low, allowing new players to get back into play easily.

“The difference with tennis is that the limiting factor in tennis is someone’s ability to get a good serve,” Freeman said. “If you’re playing against a good tennis server you’re really at a disadvantage whereas in pickleball the serve doesn’t even count in the game at all.”

The terrain is also much smaller, so there isn’t as much ground to cover, which makes the sport easier and more appealing to people who aren’t as mobile or agile. The size of the court is identical to a badminton court, being 20 feet wide by 44 feet.

“In tennis they run a lot and people my age just can’t do it, so it’s a great sport for us baby boomers,” said Marylee Stiehr, who was taking part in the tournament.

Jill and Rob Lutz brought their interest in the game with them from their native Canada. They came to Alaska two years ago and have been dedicated to growing the sport since their arrival.

“When we started playing in Ottawa there were about 100 people and when we left it was about 1,000 in three years,” Rob Lutz said.

They’ve done their best to build a community that rivals where they’re from in Canada and if the most recent tournament turnout is any indication, they’re on the right track.

“Back in Ottawa we had a huge community of people working together to help each other and when we got here we wanted to create something like that too,” said Jill Lutz.

The couple wanted to use dedicated skill-building lessons and tournaments to develop an interest and community in the sport.

Their first tournament was attended by around 60 people, the second around 80 and the most recent last weekend 138. The youngest participant in last weekend’s tournament was 17 and the oldest was 80.

“We’re excited because this is our biggest tournament and it’s the biggest tournament ever in Alaska to date,” said Jill Lutz.

They hold tournaments a few times a year and would hold them more often, but finding venues to meet their growing needs is a challenge.

The group said people will have the opportunity to learn and participate in the sport this summer at the outdoor hockey rinks near Ben Boeke Arena.

They have worked with the City of Anchorage to convert some lightly used tennis courts to 12 pickleball courts and the Anchorage Pickleball Club has availability schedules on their website and Facebook page.

“If you want to play competitively, you can.” said Rob Lutz. “If you want to play recreationally and have fun, you can. If you want to mix the two, you can.

Many club members found the sport through different routes, but they all shared a universal message about how addictive it is once they start.

“You have to tell people to beware, you’re going to get hooked because it’s so much fun,” Stiehr said.

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