Pickleball quickly became the sport of choice in Mecosta County, beyond

BIG RAPIDS – Fifty-six years ago, in a small Pacific Northwest community just outside Seattle, three fathers invented what is today the fastest growing sport in the world. United States of America.

The name of the town was Bainbridge Island and the name of the sport was pickleball.

In search of a way to occupy their children, Dads Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallun and Bill Bell had a game of badminton as their goal, but there was no birdie in sight.

In an act of improvisation, they lowered the net, caught a wiffle ball, and eventually made wooden paddles, similar to those used in table tennis (ping pong).

Over time the wiffle ball was replaced with an updated version of the wiffle ball which would be better suited for sport.

Fast forward to the present day, and pickleball is played nationwide, but it has had a strong foothold in Mecosta County for nearly three decades.

Recently inducted into the Mecosta County Hall of Fame Joyce Staffen was instrumental in bringing the sport to Big Rapids and is the catalyst for its rise in popularity over the years.

Staffen involved many locals in the game, including Gary Lenon.

Lenon, who currently runs the Big Rapids Pickleball Facebook page, said it was Staffen, along with fellow Ambassador Tony Linn, who taught him and his wife the ins and outs of the game.

“It’s a combination of tennis, badminton and table tennis; the field sizes are almost the same as badminton, ”said Lenon. “The best players are phenomenal.

Lenon said he watches YouTube videos to improve his game and learn new techniques from some of the best pickleball players in the world.

He added that it is a good starting point for anyone interested and wanting to learn more about the sport.

“You can watch all the types of competitions they have – these guys are scary,” Lenon.

As pickleball grows in popularity, even in a year marked by a global pandemic, Lenon said he was happy to see the game develop.

At the same time, it’s part of what comes with the territory of a pickleball ambassador.

“Part of my job as an ambassador is to promote the game of pickleball,” said Lenon. “The way to promote it is to get more people to play it; you have to constantly teach to grow the sport. It is an ordinary occurrence for you to teach someone how to play, and a year later they can run over you.

Often times, pickleball is mistakenly seen as a sport for retirees, but Lenon explained that this just wasn’t the case, even though it was the accepted assumption until recently.

Despite its ease of access for older people – many of whom are over 80 – it is a sport that can be played by people of all age groups.

“We go to tournaments and often the most successful are the younger, college, older (players),” said Lenon. “They have physical agility and a lot of them are tennis players. If you are a tennis player you have a warning on everyone. It’s a good crossbreed sport.

Pickleball courts are 44 feet long by 20 feet wide, and the game can be played in singles or doubles, although doubles are much more common in the area.

Big Rapids Pickleball play the Hemlock Park tennis courts twice a week from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Tuesday and Friday mornings.

During the winter months, the action, except for 2020, heats up and picks up at the Ferris State Racquet and Fitness Center.

Lenon and his colleagues used to record lines at Hemlock Park tennis courts until they were allowed to have permanent lines.

Soon, they’ll receive four new pickleball-only courts, thanks to grants from the Hemlock Park Improvement Project, led by Big Rapids resident and Grand Valley State teacher Jon Coles.

“This will continue to grow as long as they have enough land for everyone,” Lenon said.

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