Pickleball is a sport that’s skyrocketing.
The game is exploding across the city and suburbs. And as players of all ages and athletic abilities rush to the courts, doctors say injuries are up. Veterans of the sport say there’s a way to play it safe and a lesser-known perk of the game that far outweighs the physical benefits.
On any given morning in west suburban Hinsdale, you can hear the crisp crack of a pickleball paddle.
The courts here are about seven years old, but the sport has been around much longer – since about 1965, when a group of friends in Washington state created the game to keep their families active during the summer.
“Every morning, seven days a week, the six courts are full and typically 10 to 20 people waiting,” pickleball ambassador Bill Voigt said. “It’s just jam-packed.”
Voigt teaches fundamentals to the locals who drop in for doubles action. A game commonly found in retirement communities in the south is attracting players of all ages in the north.
“I’ve seen on the court an 18-year-old and an 84-year-old on the same team it’s wonderful,” he said.
But the popularity of pickle has contributed to an increase in injuries.
Dr Jeremy Alland is a sports medicine physician at Midwest Orthopedics at Rush
“We see people fall and get wrist injuries,” he said. “We’re seeing people land on their back.”
Back peddling on the court is a risky move.
“Never ever step back,” Voigt said. “When you back up, you catch your heels and you fall down.”
It was a move that caused Michael Callen’s back injury.
“Something I guess you’re not supposed to do, back peddle for a shot, which I did, then proceeded to fly in the air and land not on my head but on my back and fractured lower two vertebra,” Callen said.
The 61-year-old is still recovering and sitting out the season.
Lisa Wennenstrum is back on the court after an ankle fracture last year.
“I was up at the net where we dink the balls, and I just wanted to get that last hit,” she said. “And I rolled my ankle and just went down and ended up chipping an ankle bone off. And it was extremely painful.”
It’s another safety tip from Voigt: The fewer steps the better.
“I like to refer to this as ‘Zen Pickle,’” he said. “Be calm. Keep your feet calm. Keep them on the ground. And just move to the ball with a step.”
“We give the advice to people who have not been doing a lot of physical activity to almost any sport: Start slow. Don’t overdo it. Take breaks, a rest day in between,” Alland said. “Just don’t try to do everything someone who has been playing a long time is doing.”
But the benefits of the game far outweigh the risks. At the city of Chicago’s only designated pickle courts — most are simply modified tennis facilities – Rick Prewitt plays for a heartfelt reason.
“I’m on the court every day every day,” he said.
Known as “Mr Pickle,” the 63-year-old recruits players of all abilities and ages – some in their 80s – at Gwendolyn Brooks Park on the city’s southside.
“Out here everybody has a medical story,” he said. “So it’s just fab that we are all out here being athletic.”
Prewitt story begins at the park. A year ago he collapsed on the courts.
“Fortunately, there were people around me when this happened,” he said. “They did CPR. And I went to the doctor and got my little friend. I’m now Robo-Rick. I have an ICD.”
That’s a defibrillator in his chest. Prewitt was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, but he’s back building up the program that’s just as much about the competition as it is the community.
“This forces you to come outside and breathe, to interact with different people. So to me that is the greatest benefit,” Prewitt said. “I got pickleball chills. Anytime something related to pickleball that could benefit, it gives me chills. We’re going to continue to grow. I’ll be gone, long gone, and this game will still be going. And some of the benefits that we supply will actually be manifested in that next generation.”
This weekend you can catch the third annual Chicago Pickleball Open tournament in north suburban Highland Park.
If you’re wondering where the term pickleball came from, it’s believed the creators named it for a type of crew boat. Or, more charming lore, after the family dog.