GRIFFITH — Len Sporman used to be an avid racquetball player, taught it for many years. But later in life, after his joints started breaking down, he went into a self-proclaimed funk.
Then, three weeks ago, he tried pickleball.
“I got a sweat,” the 70-year-old Dyer retiree said. “It reminded me of my younger days, with racquetball.
He has been playing consistently ever since, and has been trying to get his friends, and former racquetball opponents, into the sport. The game, which has been growing in popularity across the country and Region in recent years, is like a cross between racquetball, tennis and ping pong; players hit a wiffle ball back and forth, with larger, ping-pong-style rackets, over a net, on shortened tennis courts.
“I fell in love with this, the first time I was able to get on the court and move like this,” he said. He got into a squat-like stance, looking like a tennis player about to shuffle across the hardwood.
He bent down to pick up a ball off the floor.
“I couldn’t do this three weeks ago,” he said.
He plays at Match Point Tennis Academy here, which recently started a pickleball program with the help of a couple other local advocates of the sport.
A year and a half ago, Rich and Nancy Bowman, business owners from St. John, were looking for a place to retire in Florida. They visited a community there that had dozens of pickleball courts. Former competitive racquetball players — they actually met on a racquetball court in Schererville — they decided to give the sport a try.
Consider them enthusiasts.
They recently competed in the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in Naples, Florida, which featured 2,100 players from 47 countries. They also bought a bunch of balls, rackets and nets to start the program at the Griffith tennis academy.
Nancy, 52, is the USA Pickleball Association’s “pickleball ambassador” for northern Indiana, tasked with growing the sport in the area.
“If you play for a while, you’ll run your butt off,” Rich Bowman said, noting that the sport is likely adding years to the lives of the country’s seniors. “We’ve heard people say that pickleball saved their life.
The 58-year-old said it’s an easy sport to learn, particularly for people who played racket sports in the past.
“It’s great second life for tennis players,” said Carl Davis, the director of Match Point Tennis Academy. “It’s not as much running, but people want to stay active.”
Bob Campbell, a retired mover from Highland, came out to try pickleball Wednesday on the recommendation of a friend. The 67-year-old used to play tennis and racquetball; he still golfs, but says it’s not strenuous enough for him. He said he needs to lose weight, sits on the couch too much.
“I’m sweating — that’s the whole idea,” he said, after the end of a few games Wednesday. “This is cardio — and my lumbar will be talking to me tomorrow.”
As for Sporman, pickleball has gotten him not only active again, but also socializing. Seniors, himself included, are often isolated, he said. “I was a recluse,” he said. “I didn’t go out.
He pointed to a friend, in the middle of a lively game, who started playing a few weeks ago. “It’s gotten him out of the house,” Sporman said.
“You get that adrenaline from it, being a competitor,” said 83-year-old Chuck Fasol, of Highland, after attempting pickleball for the first time Wednesday. “It’s nice to be a little bit active.”
Fasol, a retired food broker, played racquetball up until about five years ago when, he said, his legs “gave away.”
“Nice rally, nice rally. Wow, Chuck right on the line,” Sporman said, cheering his friend on. “That reminds me of our racquetball days. Ace!” He shook his fist.
Sporman said he hadn’t moved this way in decades It’s something he can do with his wife, his adult children.
After playing two games Wednesday, his, wife, Sharon, showed the fitness app on her smartphone. It said she had burnt 206 calories.
Len taught racquetball for 15 years at the former Franciscan Omni Health & Fitness in Schererville. He was devastated when he could no longer play. He was lost.
“My passion in life was racquetball, and pickleball has replaced that,” he said.