Toni Teasdale can't get enough of Pickleball, a racquet game she plays six days a week at the Anna Maria Island Community Center. A favorite of seniors, the fast-growing sport is a cross between tennis, ping-pong and badminton.
"We try not to let a day go by without playing," said Teasdale, whose husband, Jim, is equally passionate about pickleball.
"It can be a very fast game - that ball is just zipping back and forth. But for beginners and people who aren't athletic, it doesn't have to be fast," she said.
Pickleball is a played single or doubles on a badminton-sized court. Equipment is a plastic ball and paddles that are a little bit bigger than ping-pong paddles. The net is set lower than tennis nets, and a game is usually over in less than 15 minutes.
As in other parts of the country, the game is hot in Manatee and Sarasota.
"It's unbelievable," Teasdale. "We used to average about 30 people during the winter and now that's around 110."
Once, 41 people showed up to play, she said. Pickleball matches are short, about 10 minutes, and with three courts at the center, everyone got to play.
Another place to play pickleball in Bradenton are courts at Saints Peter and Paul the Apostles Catholic Church. In Sarasota, pickleball is big at the Arlington Park Recreational Center, Salvation Army Gym and Sun-N-Fun RV Resort and Campground.
Pickleball will be part of the Gulf Coast Senior Games that start on Feb. 18. Singles, doubles and mixed doubles matches will be held at Arlington Park in Sarasota.
The sport got its start as a backyard game improvised in 1965 near Seattle. The impetus came when Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington, and his friend, Bill Bell, found their families had been sitting around with nothing to do while they played golf.
There was an old badminton court on the grounds of the Pritchard home and the men had an idea that everyone could play badminton. But they couldn't find enough badminton racquets and substituted ping-pong paddles. After that first weekend, they kept playing and developed rules for their newly invented family sport.
Since then, pickleball has expanded far beyond the Pritchard backyard with tournaments and an official pickleball association. On its website, the USA Pickelball Association lists more than 2,000 places to play pickleball across the country,
Terry Wingate in Sarasota caught pickleball fever from a friend in North Carolina who loved the game and created his own backyard court. Wingate, 63, is now a volunteer ambassador of the USA Pickleball Association and works to promote the game locally.
"It's a very fast-paced game. You get tremendous exercise, hand-eye coordination and work up a sweat," said Wingate.
"It's like mini-tennis but a lot easier on the knees."
The number of players in Sarasota has grown to the point where games are scheduled according to skill levels at the Arlington Park Recreation Center and Salvation Army Gym.
"There are so many players in the wintertime that we started to divide it up," said Wingate.
For now, pickleball is mostly a sport for retirees because games usually must be scheduled during the day, said Wingate. The Salvation Army Gym is open for pickleball on Tuesday evenings but community centers often have after-school programs and evening activities.
In the summer, the availability of pickleball locations shrinks considerably when schools close and centers start their summer camps for children.
At the Anna Maria community center, players range from age mid-50s into the 80s, said Teasdale, 67.
Her husband, Jim, is 82 and plays doubles with a friend who is 83. The pair will be competing in the Gulf Coast Senior Games.
Teasdale, who is also an ambassador with the USA Pickleball Association, gives beginner lessons. People who have played tennis catch on the quickest, she said,
For more information about pickleball, visit the USA Pickleball Association website at www.usapa.org. The site has a "place to play" section with a list of local times and places for pickleball. Go to http://south.usapa.org for a look at pickleball events in Florida.
Susan Hemingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at email@example.com.