LEWISTON — When Steve Walbridge learned his wife had purchased him a new Pickleball paddle, he had a hunch he was being introduced to a new sport.

Linda Walbridge tried the sport two weeks ago for the first time. She loved it so much, she gave her husband reason to play it also.

“I went out and bought him a racquet,” Linda Walbridge said. “So he’d have to come too.”

L-A Pickleball plays three times a week — Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. They’ve been attracting about two dozen players per outing, and this week, they had as many as 27. During the summer, they play on the courts at Lewiston High School, but play at the Auburn Rec Department during the colder months.

“We’ve grown to where we have 25 or 26 people show up,” former Lewiston High School administrator Paul Amnott, who helped start the program, said. “It’s getting bigger. We have three courts during the summer and we have three courts inside at the Auburn Rec during the winter.”

There are about 15 regulars that come out to play each day. There’s a court reserved to help newer players get adjusted to the game while the other courts have regulars rotating in and out of action. L-A Pickleball usually plays doubles matches, but the game can be played as singles.

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“It gets you out there instead of sitting around,” Fern Masse, a retired coach and school administrator in Lewiston, said. “It gives you some exercise. It makes you move. You get a great workout.”

Though the sport is especially popular with senior citizens, it is drawing interest from people of all ages. The USAPA (USA Pickleball Association) just recently held its 2016 Atlantic Tournament in Portland, attracting 350 people from all over the Atlantic region and beyond. Maine had about 130 participants.

“It’s fast-paced,” Linda Walbridge said after her first day playing with L-A Pickleball, and second outing overall. “It’s a lot like tennis, but it doesn’t cover as much court. We’re relatively new to the area, so it’s a great way to meet people. It’s been an all-around wonderful experience.”

Where did it come from?

The game was created in 1965. After a round of golf one summer day, Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington State, and businessman friend Bill Bell returned home to find their families doing nothing. The property on Bainbridge Island had an old badminton court, so Pritchard and Bell tried to spark some activity by searching for badminton equipment. Without success, they improvised with ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball. A new sport was born, and evolved from there.

The first Pickleball court was built in the back yard of Pritchard’s neighbor two years later. Soon to follow were governing bodies of the sport, which included the organization of the USAPA in 1984. By 1990, Pickleball was being played in all 50 states.

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By 2008, there were 420 places to play in North America listed on the USAPA website, a list that included 43 states and four Canadian Provinces, and about 1,500 individual courts. Those figures didn’t take into account courts in the process of being built or those at private homes. In 2009, the USAPA established a grant program to assist players in creating new sites for new players. By the end of 2013, the program had created over 1,400 new sites.

Maine has an estimated 68 places to play and the recent tournament in Portland was said to be the largest racquet sport tournament held in Maine.

Falling in love with the game

Amnott first learned about the sport while in Florida three years ago. A pair of college friends introduced him and his wife, Connie, to the sport.

“We played a couple times that first year,” Amnott said. “We came back and bought some paddles and fell in love with it.”

Pickleball is a combination of elements from tennis, ping pong and badminton. Its court, which is 20 feet by 44 feet, is about one-third the size of a tennis doubles court. The net is shorter and smaller than ones used for tennis.

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The game features a perforated plastic ball (slightly thicker than a wiffle ball). It is struck with wooden or composite paddles. The investment to get into the game is minimal. A new paddle might run $60-$150 and $10 would get you three game balls.

“It’s a lot cheaper than buying a set of golf clubs,” Amnott said.

Amnott and his wife enjoyed playing the game so much that they wanted to find other active players here in Maine. He posted a submission to the Sun Spots column in the Sun Journal.

“We had a turn out of about 10 people the first day,” Amnott said. “We had no clue how many people would be interested. We came back from Florida and we didn’t know if anybody in this area was playing. Come to find out, when we put it in the paper, there were people looking for places to play.”

That group has continued to grow. Amnott says they’re always looking to add participants and hope to find a permanent court to play on at some point.

“It’s a fun game,” Amnott said. “It was something my wife and I could do together. We could play together or play each other. It’s a great social thing. We’ve met a lot of great people down in Florida and a lot of people here that have come and played that we’ve become friend with.”

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Amnott even lured his friend and former colleague at Lewiston High School, Masse, to play. Masse started playing last fall.

“I played racquetball years ago,” Masse said. “It’s a lot different. You’re not trying to kill the ball. You’re trying to hit it to the right spot.”

Linda Walbridge had begun a membership at the Auburn YMCA recently and was invited to join a Pickleball game there. That was the first she’d ever heard of the game, but decided to give it a try.

“I went to play and I was hooked,” she said.

She immediately went out and bought paddles and was out there this week learning the game.

“It was good,” Steve Walbridge said of his first try at the sport. “It was fun. I can’t say I was rusty because I’d never played before, but I’ve played a lot of racquet sports. So my racquet skills were rusty. There were a lot of mishits.”

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Steve Walbridge said the game reminded him of a sport popular in New Jersey called Paddle Tennis. That game is played in a caged court but had a similar feel to Pickleball.

“You could play the ball off the wire,” he said. “The ball doesn’t bounce very high. It was a very slow pace until you get into the rallies.”

Amnott has seen the sport continue to grow here in Maine. Local recreation programs offer the sport. Even Lewiston High School has a physical education class that includes the game. The more people try it, the more they seem to like it.

“I haven’t met anybody that has played this and did not like it,” Amnott said.

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