You can hear the pings, pongs and pops of dozens of polymer balls hitting solid paddles before you even set foot inside the large athletic complex at Speedway Village.
It’s the sound of Lincoln’s ever-growing pickleball community, and you’ll find 71-year-old Bill Roehrs there ready to play at 8 a.m. every day of the week.
If you’ve never heard the word “pickleball,” you might soon: it’s one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S., with more than 2.8 million players and a 12 percent increase in the past year, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Its growth is because of ambassadors such as Roehrs, who jump at every opportunity to introduce the game to newcomers, show them where to buy a paddle and get them on the court.
Roehrs describes pickleball as “playing pingpong, but standing on the table.”
The game originated in the 1960s and is played on a court a third the size of a regular tennis court and scored like badminton. Players hit a plastic ball back and forth over 3-foot-high nets — no pickles involved. (As for the unusual name, most players agree that it originated from the creators’ dog, named Pickles, who loved to chase after the plastic balls.)
Roehrs was introduced to pickleball while vacationing in Arizona. An avid tennis player, he was on the courts when he spotted the unusual game and wondered what it was. Someone asked if he’d like to give it a try.
“The rest was history,” Roehrs said. “I fell in love with the game. I personally have never come on to a game in my life that is more accessible to more different kinds of people.”
In Lincoln, the list of regular players is diverse. Roehrs said he sees everything from grandfathers playing with grandchildren, people recovering from strokes, seniors playing to stay active and competitive groups practicing for tournaments.
The motto of Lincoln’s club, Pickleball Lincoln Inc., is “Fun, Fitness and Friendship.”
“And that is exactly what it is,” Roehrs said. “People are laughing, they’re getting exercise, and they’re meeting new people.”
There were only about four to six regular “picklers” in Lincoln when Roehrs came back from Arizona with the bug for the game. The group decided to begin meeting at Union College, where pickleball lines were painted on the tennis courts.
“The first time we played at Union College, there were only about three of us that showed up,” Roehrs said. “And then the next time there would be two or three more. Then there was 15 and 20. Each person would just call a friend and say ‘Do you want to play this game?’ Nobody knew what pickleball really was, but then once they start playing it’s very, very contagious. It just kept growing.”
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By the end of the first year, the group had grown to 75 people. Players ranged from 7-year-olds to 83-year-old Dorothy Matzke.
A former music teacher in Hastings and for Lincoln Public Schools for 40 years, Roehrs naturally fell into teaching and promoting pickleball.
He became an ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association and gives free lessons to anyone who wants to learn how to play.
“I teach a lot of beginners, especially in the summer,” Roehrs said. “Frankly, I enjoy that a lot. I enjoy seeing people searching for something to fill in their retirement lives. It’s more than just walking or using a treadmill.”
Roehrs said he hopes Lincoln’s club continues to grow and more seniors are encouraged to compete.
In Arizona, the 70-75 age division for pickleball tournaments fills up in five minutes. In Nebraska, it’s not unusual for Roehrs to be the only one in his age division.
Roehrs recalls a tournament where he totaled the ages of his two opponents.
“I still had ‘em by 20 years” he said. “It’s difficult to compete against young, good players. But we still have fun.”
Along with growing the pickleball popularity in Nebraska, Pickleball Lincoln Inc. also works to bring the sport to local high schools by writing grant applications, and the club pushed to open six dedicated outdoor pickleball courts at Peterson Park in 2016. Next up is raising funds for 32 more outdoor courts at Jensen Park to keep up with the growth.
“I see someday that Pickleball is going to be a sport like tennis is in the high schools,” Roehrs said. “The game is changing. There’s millions of players that play now across the nation.”
Despite winning tournaments, raising funds and even losing 20 pounds, Roehrs said his greatest accomplishment is having fun playing the game.
“I just hope to keep on doing what I’m doing,” Roehrs said. “My advice is to give it a try and if you like it, you like it. You’ll never know unless you give it a try. Life is short. Take advantage of the opportunities right in front of you.”
Interested in playing pickleball? Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.