The fastest growing sport in the country has produced a national champion from La Grange.
Bob Poggensee, 59, won the national doubles championship in the 50-plus age group at the sixth Minto USA National Pickleball Championships in Naples, Florida.
“We were over the moon,” Poggensee said of his side’s victory. “My partner jumped into my arms and my wife was there too, putting everything on Facebook for my friends to see.”
His partner, Florida resident John Travnik, helped the team survive two match points in the final set to seal the win.
For those who haven’t been exposed to the activity yet, pickleball is reputed to be the fastest growing sport in the country and drew around 25,000 spectators to the event. Participants ranged from juniors to those aged 50 and over, with professionals competing for $25,000 in prize money.
Poggensee and Travnik won the doubles championship in the 3.5, 50+ amateur category.
A court game that draws inspiration from various sports, such as tennis, ping-pong, badminton, and squash, pickleball has scoring rules and equipment all its own. It is played on a court with a net like tennis, but about the same size as a doubles badminton court. Singles and doubles competitions use the same court.
The paddles look like table tennis paddles, only bigger, and the balls look like whiz balls.
Indeed, when the game was founded on Bainbridge Island, Washington, the original balls used were whiffle balls.
There is a “two-bounce” rule, which means the ball must bounce once either side after a serve – always underhand – before a player is allowed to volley (hit it before it does not bounce). Only serving teams are allowed to earn points and a winning score can range from 11 to 15 points.
The sport is especially popular with local parks and community centers, which many believe is the reason for its strong growth in popularity. Sponsors of the Minto Nationals estimated that there are currently 4.8 million people participating in pickleball, up from just 3.1 million in 2018.
Poggensee grew up in Riverside, graduated from Riverside-Brookfield High School, and earned a computer science degree from Loyola University. He spent his career at ComEd Exelon, where he was part of the company’s IT division.
Poggensee has lived in La Grange with his wife since 1990, where they raised two daughters, now adults.
For the past 30 years he has played his share of traditional tennis and has been a member of La Grange Field Club, competing in tournaments throughout the western suburbs.
“I won a few championships there,” he said.
After retiring, Poggensee took a pickleball course at the Park District in La Grange and has since become addicted to the game.
“Anyone can play this game,” Poggensee said in a phone interview. “It’s really easy to learn.”
And he discovered that he loved the game even more than tennis.
“It’s a smaller area and players have a higher chance of hitting the ball than tennis,” he said.
Although there are more actual ball strikes, the smaller area means less movement, which is especially beneficial for older players.
“It’s definitely easier on the knees than it is in tennis,” Poggensee said. “But you still have a good workout.”
The game also lends itself to more equal gender competition.
“It’s not as much of a dominant strength sport as tennis and women are essentially equal,” he said.
Poggensee said despite all the physical benefits of playing pickleball, the friendships might be the best thing about the sport.
“There are great people out there playing pickleball,” he said. “I made about 150 new friends. It is a very open community.
Poggensee pointed out that the sport is also great for older people.
“There are people playing over 70,” he said. “Anyone can play this game. Just do it.”
Hank Beckman is a freelance journalist for Pioneer Press.