Joplin, MO: Pickleball’s popularity grows rapidly across the area

By Kevin McClintock

For a moment, Cathy Wendt struggled to put her emotions into words.

“It’s just the most wonderful game in the world” she finally said, flashing a smile.

Years ago, while visiting Florida, Wendt came across a game she’d never seen before — a sport named, of all things, pickleball. It was a game that appeared to be a hybrid of other older games: tennis, ping pong, racquetball and badminton. She was immediately hooked by its easy rules and competitive nature.

“It’s exercise,” Wendt said of pickleball, “but you don’t know it’s exercise. Because it’s so much fun. And it’s so healthy. It keeps you in shape.”

Even better, she added moments later: “You’ll never leave a pickleball (match) without meeting a new friend.”

Back in Joplin, she wanted to play the game — which, by the way, has nothing to do with dill or sour pickles — on a regular basis.

She was saddened, however, when very few people even knew about the game’s existence. She vowed to change that.

And she did.

Over the next three years — culminating with meetings with Joplin officials — she brought the game to the Joplin Family YMCA building in downtown Joplin before that location closed.

Pickleball immediately made its way south to the McIntosh Circle location, where it thrives today. Wendt said she plays at the Joplin YMCA location at least three times a week — sessions are available each weekday (free for members, a $6 drop-in fee for nonmembers).

The game has also been embraced by Millennium Family Fitness on North Range Line Road, where Joplin’s Jerry Rolland teaches pickleball lessons clinics and drills, open play games are held from 9 a.m. to noon each weekday, $3 for members and $10 for nonmembers. Rolland serves as the area’s sole official pickleball ambassador. And because of those earlier meet-and-greet sessions between Wendt and city officials, pickleball can now be played in several public venues in Joplin.

Done Leow, with the Joplin Pickle Ball Club, said there are eight dedicated pickleball courts with LED lighting at Landreth Park, 800 NE Murphy Blvd., with groups meeting nearly every Tuesday and Thursday nights, from March through October. Landreth is premier pickleball spot for outdoor players, supporting up to 32 players at once. Ewert Park, at Seventh and Murphy Blvd., has two courts with both tennis and pickleball lines, while Leonard Park, 500 Turk Ave., has one.

Pickleball games are also held in Carl Junction (Carl Junction Community Center, 303 N. Main St.) and Carthage (Fair Acres Family YMCA, 2600 Grand Ave. and a court at Griggs Park).

“Finally, after so many years, pickleball is here in Joplin,” Wendt said. “It’s so fun, so wonderful — it just fits so many needs, whether you want to exercise or socialize.

“Now I can relax,” she added with a chuckle.

So what is pickleball? It’s a paddle sport played between two to four players on a badminton-sized court with a net and rules similar to tennis. The plastic game ball has holes in it, resembling a child’s whiffle ball.

“My grandson said it best: ‘It’s really like playing on a giant ping pong table,’” Rolland said. “And he’s so right.”

The game was created for all ages and for all skill levels, said Rolland — proof to its popularity.

“I’m passionate about pickleball mainly because it’s given me more than I could ever repay,” he said. A longtime tennis enthusiast, Rolland had to quit the game because of aching, uncooperative joints. Because the game allows people to work on their balance, agility, reflexes and hand-eye coordination without putting excessive strains on the body, it’s a wonderful alternative for older players with hip, shoulder, knee or other joint problems.

“I plan on playing until I’m 80 years old — and I can,” Rolland said.

According to, more than 3 million players played pickleball in the U.S. last year, and that number has been growing by more than 10 percent each year over the past decade. Aside from fitness centers and city parks, pickleball courts have been built on cruise ships and large RV parks. By 2021, 8 million Americans, mostly those 55 and older, will be playing the game, per the USA Pickleball Association.

“I’m 65, I‘m diabetic, and I’ve got bad knees, bad shoulders, but other than playing golf there wasn’t really a sport out there that I could fall in love with,” he continued. “Pickleball allows me to compete, and that’s the most important thing to me.”

There’s also the social aspect of the game that is appealing to people, primarily seniors.

“Let me tell you what, these people are the most fun group of people you will ever meet,” Rolland said. “If you walk by a pickleball game, they’ll stop you and hand you a paddle and ask you to play. They embrace beginners. They’re big believers … and enthusiastic about the game.”

What’s in a name?

There are two versions of the story of how pickleball got its name. The first is that Joan Pritchard, the wife of one of the game’s inventors, gave the game that name because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew, where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.” But according to another of the game’s three inventors, Barney McCallum, the game was named after his dog, Pickles, who would chase the ball and run away with it in his mouth.

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