Forest Lake embraces pickleball

Photo by Jason DeMoe
Since the new Fenway Park pickleball courts opened in June, they’ve received near-constant use by community members.

If it is ever decided that a city should be designated as the Pickleball Capital of Minnesota, Forest Lake would have to be among the places considered.

For now, Forest Lake has staked its claim as the local center for the game. A new set of courts at Fenway Park has regularly been packed with players of all ages since being completed in June. On Friday, Aug. 4 at 4 p.m., an hour-long grand opening ceremony will officially introduce the courts to the community – and as soon as the ceremony is over, the players are likely to flood the courts again.

“I’m obsessed with pickleball. I try to play every day,” local player Gary Lee said.

Pickleball is a variation on tennis and can be played singles or doubles, though doubles is more common. The ball is similar to the kind used in Wiffle ball, and players strike with paddles rather than rackets. The area of play is smaller than the one used in tennis, so foot speed is less of a necessity, and hitting skills are more rewarded. The low-impact nature of pickleball enables a player of any age to enjoy the game.

“It gives you a little bit of exercise without going to extremes,” Lee said. “Anybody of any age can play it.”

Lee is one among many Minnesotans who have taken to pickleball over the past few years. More than 100 area players have already joined an informal pickleball club.

The game is very popular in warm-weather areas like Florida and Arizona, and many seniors first saw the game when spending a winter in those states. When the seniors went back north, pickleball came with them.

“It’s really grown throughout the nation,” Lee said. “Not just Forest Lake, but other northern cities and in Canada.”

Although the game spread to Minnesota primarily through the experience of seniors spending time down south, the game was actually invented in Washington state. The word “pickleball” has nothing to do with any aspect of play – the family that invented the game in the 1960s chose to name their new game after their dog.

Parks and recreation groups quickly spotted the potential of the pickleball.

“Pickleball is the fastest-growing recreational activity,” said Jamie Muscha, parks and recreation coordinator for Forest Lake. “We’ve had people playing from 10 years old up to 80 years old. It’s easy to play and there’s a big social aspect as well, so you can get your physical activity but also make some friends.”

For the past few years, Lee has spearheaded an informal club called Active Adults, which seeks opportunities for walking, biking, kayaking and other physical activities in Forest Lake. That group caught the pickleball fever early on, and last year became involved in an effort to bring dedicated courts to Forest Lake. A series of meetings followed, through which the players taught parks officials about the game.

“We decided education was the first step,” Lee said.

The original idea was to convert one or more of the existing tennis courts at Beltz Park to pickleball courts – a single tennis court can be relined to create four pickleball courts. As discussions with the Parks , Lakes and Trails Commission continued, it was noted that an old cement slab – originally intended to be the foundation for an outdoor hockey rink that was never completed – was sitting in Fenway Park, serving no purpose.

That cement slab is now the foundation of the new pickleball courts. Construction progressed quickly this spring, at a massive savings: Where a set of courts built from scratch would have cost an estimated $200,000, the use of an existing foundation brought the cost down to around $50,000, funded by the city with contributions from the YMCA and Allina Health.

As the seat of pickleball in the north metro area, Forest Lake is already slated to host two tournaments on the Fenway Park courts. The first, organized by the YMCA, will be played on Saturday, Aug. 5, as part of this weekend’s dedication event. The Minnesota Recreation & Parks Association will host a tournament in October. The YMCA has already begun a series of instructional classes to introduce new players to the game.

“It’s our goal to get more people engaged,” Muscha said. “We’ll be working hard in the fall and into next season to provide more awareness. It’s a really fun activity that we want more people to be aware of.”

Whether one wishes to participate in tournaments or not, there is plenty of opportunity to get in a game (or three, or five, or 12) at Fenway Park each day from 9 a.m. until dusk. Particularly in the mornings, no court has lacked an active rally in recent weeks.

“We even have people saying they’d like to have the courts open at 7 so they can play for an hour or so before work,” Lee said.