Grab a paddle! Pickleball has juice in Lake Oswego
On a Tuesday morning inside the newly renovated George Rogers Park pickleball facility, a lengthy line of paddles imbuing a tapestry of colors and brands rest against a fence a few feet away from the white lines that constitute the outer edges of the courts.
The former tennis courts were converted to pickleball just a couple months ago. Yet, on that morning and many others, 24 players were simultaneously embroiled in six matches while the hanging paddles represented the number of players waiting to play. Pickleball is said to be one of the fastest growing sports in the United States. But its rise in Lake Oswego might be particularly pronounced.
"There's been incredible, almost unbelievable growth," Lake Oswego Parks and Recreation Director Ivan Anderholm said.
To highlight the sport to the community, the Lake Oswego Pickleball Club is hosting an exhibition and mini clinic at George Rogers Park from 1-3:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 3. The free exhibition will include national champions and top players in the region while locals can receive pointers from pros during the clinic. For more information, visit https://www.lakeoswegopickleball.org/.
"We're just demonstrating to everybody what high level play looks like," said Jane Schmits, who helped found the pickleball club.
Another impetus for the tournament is to showcase the renovated facility, which was years in the making.
In 2015, based on the Parks and Recreation department's observation that the George Rogers Park tennis courts received very little consistent play and requests from pickleball players who wanted a place to play in town, the department added pickleball lines to the tennis courts. And out of that decision, the Lake Oswego Pickleball Club formed. The group quickly garnered over 200 members and then stopped recruiting because the courts needed repair, according to fellow club founder and Jane's husband Carl Schmits.
Carl and others attribute the popularity of the club to its organized structure — a "host" facilitates play each session and an organized system shuffles players on and off the court and allows players of similar skill level to play each other more consistently.
"No one likes to get blown out on the court and giving someone a donut (meaning they don't score any points) isn't much fun either," Carl said. "We try to create a format and playing environment that creates challenging matches and creates a good turnout."
Because pickleball was only allowed during designated times so that tennis players could use the courts, pickleball players had to take down and put the nets back up again at the beginning and end of their sessions, which they said was onerous. So after learning that the George Rogers Park courts, which included noticeable cracks, were slated for an overhaul, club members asked the Parks and Recreation department if they could convert the courts to full-time pickleball courts while they were at it.
Anderholm said the lack of tennis activity at the courts and the growth of pickleball contributed to the decision to convert the courts solely to pickleball use.
"We saw an increase in pickleball, not only organized play but impromptu play," he said. "The decision was based on the fact that we have dedicated (tennis) courts to other users in the community but we didn't have dedicated courts for pickleball."
The renovation included a resurfacing, renetting and adding an acoustic fence to decrease noise, and the project cost the City approximately $35,000 according to Anderholm.
The group met everyday before the renovation but added a second two-hour session afterward. Now, the group has well over 300 members, about half of whom are Lake Oswego residents.
The pickleball club includes players as young as 8 and as old as 98. But the sport is often most attractive to former tennis players who find tennis to be too hard on their body.
Lake Oswego Pickleball Club member Ray Howell, for one, was a longtime tennis player who was introduced to pickleball by his sister and brother in law in Sunriver. Because the pickleball and tennis groundstrokes are similar, he quickly got the hang of it. And after experiencing shoulder problems, he quit tennis all together and devoted his recreational time to pickleball instead. Without the strain of the overhead serve and the higher impact of hitting a tennis ball, he feels fewer aches and pains.
"My shoulders were starting to give way a little bit and I stopped playing tennis and all the sudden my shoulder doesn't hurt anymore," Howell said.
Nevertheless, though the courts are much smaller, Howell says he gets just as good of a workout playing pickleball as tennis.
"In tennis (particularly doubles) sometimes you actually are standing around a little more," Howell said. "You're watching rallies and you're moving some but not like you are in pickleball. The ball is coming to you more often and quicker."
Fellow club member Cynthia Ping quit tennis in favor of pickleball after a rash of tennis elbow injuries kept her off the court. But Ping also said pickleball is less costly to play because of the cheaper membership fees (many tennis players in the Portland area belong to tennis clubs with indoor courts and expensive membership fees while the Lake Oswego Pickleball Club costs just $25 a year) and because, unlike tennis, there aren't any strings that sometimes need replacing. But she also said pickleball affords more flexibility.
"If you can't make it (to a scheduled tennis session) you have to call for a sub. I would get up every morning and have my speed dial on two phones at 7 a.m. to try to get a court. (In pickleball) You can just float in, float out. If it works out that day great. If not fine," Ping said.
Glen Mitzel, another member of the pickleball club, still plays tennis but posited that pickleball has grown in popularity in part because it's easier to learn than tennis.
"People that aren't necessarily very athletic can come out and get to the level where they can enjoy pickleball," Mitzel said. "Tennis is very difficult to get to that level."
Anderholm also noted that while tennis is more siloed, in pickleball large groups of players often congregate — as the Lake Oswego Pickleball Club demonstrates.
"It's a game that has a much more vibrant social component than tennis," he said. "Tennis it's considered rude to be loud or laugh. It's actually encouraged for pickleball."
Though Lake Oswego Pickleball Club members are generally happy with the new courts, they have much bigger plans on the horizon.
Could pickleball be an economic boon?
Carl wants Lake Oswego to replicate the pickleball community in Naples, Florida. Featuring five covered courts surrounded by an array of outdoor courts, the Naples facility hosts the US Open Pickleball Championships, which generated $4.5 million in economic activity in 2018 according to an article in Naples Daily News.
And Carl wants the City of Lake Oswego to help build a similar complex that would have enough courts to host tournaments. He estimates that the courts could cost $1.5 million to build.
"There are no large venues in the north of the U.S. that are capable of handling large national scale tennis courts," Carl said. "My proposal would allow large summer time events that we could scale out and address the manner that I think would be a significant impact in the Portland metro area."
Carl has presented this idea in public forums regarding the City of Lake Oswego's $30 million Parks and Recreation bond, which was approved by voters earlier this year. And he said two possible venues for the facility are the Lake Oswego Golf Course, which the City is considering turning from an 18 to 9 hole course, and the nearby Rassekh property, a venue that was once considered for a new tennis facility. Carl also said that for large tournaments to be viable, the Lake Oswego School District would need to allow the temporary use of the Lakeridge High tennis courts.
The club's more short term goal, though, is to convince the City to invest in a covered apparatus so that pickleball players can safely play in George Rogers Park amid inclement weather.
"Even a cover just so the courts are dry would be nice," Mitzel said.
Other than the George Rogers Park courts, pickleball is also available at the South Shore tennis courts on South Shore Boulevard. Nevertheless, the pickleball players say they need more places to play.
"It's (the George Rogers Park courts) way too small
for the demand. It could be double this size easily," Mitzel said.
Anderholm acknowledged that the demand for pickleball in Lake Oswego is greater than the supply of courts and said the City will continue to look for ways to add more in the future. However, he said the City must take into consideration the needs of all recreators before investing in a large-scale pickleball-centric project.
"I think that the plan is a good plan," Anderholm said of Carl's proposal. "The challenge for us as a municipal recreation provider is we need to balance pickleball with tennis, basketball, soccer, baseball. Our approach is more of a balanced approach."
Something to do together
In their 30s, Carl and Jane used to regularly play golf and tennis together. But after a wrist injury left Jane unable to play either sport again, the couple stopped playing ball sports together for the subsequent 15 years. However, during a day in Sunriver, their friends pointed them to a set of tennis courts that were empty and asked them if they wanted to play pickleball. They had never heard of the sport but gave it a shot anyway (be-cause of the lesser impact, Jane's wrist can handle pickleball).
"We tried it and thought it was so much fun. So we came back home and went out and bought wooden paddles, and we just started hitting over a tennis net," Jane said.
Now, Carl travels to tournaments across the United States testing out video technology such as 360 degree cameras and slow motion replay to try to develop a media platform for the sport while Jane and Carl are both official ambassadors for the United States Pickleball Association. They enjoy the social component of the sport and have made new friends through the club. But they also have enjoyed playing as a pairing like they used to.
"It was something we could do together again," Carl said.
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