Richard Heyman returns a serve while practicing at the eight new pickleball courts at Riverside Park. The courts are owned and were built and dedicated by the city this summer, replacing the three tennis courts that had come under disrepair. Pickleball has picked up a devoted following in Findlay, with dozens of players packing the courts every morning and evening. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

By BRENNA GRITEMAN
LIFE EDITOR

Findlay’s fastest growing club has no board of directors, no membership fees and no board room.

But what it lacks in organized membership, it more than makes up for in participation.

Drive past the eight new pickleball courts at Findlay’s Riverside Park on any weekday morning or after work hours and you’ll find dozens of players of all ages — most fresh into retirement but many well into their 70s and 80s — energetically hitting a small perforated ball back and forth across a net. Many evenings, every single court is in use.

Most players packing the courts identify with the loosely defined Flag City Pickleball Club, though its roughly 145 email list members are quick to note the space is open to everyone. They just want to see the courts being used and enjoyed by as many people as possible.

The pickleball courts replace the park’s three tennis courts that had fallen into disrepair. They are built to United States Pickleball Association specifications, dedicated this summer by the City of Findlay. Two representatives from AARP were present for the ceremony and presented a check for over $23,000 to the city to provide enhancements including bleachers, spectator benches and wind screens. Based on the courts meeting official specifications, Findlay may one day be eligible to host official pickleball tournaments.

In conjunction with the dedication, the city recreation department went on to host two “learn to play” events, the second of which attracted 45 new players.

A bucket of perforated balls used for pickleball. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

Other newcomers just wander over from the park or pull off while driving down Tiffin Avenue behind the fire station, wondering what all the fuss is about at the courts.

“Some people just stop by and come over. And the group is very friendly if they just stop by and want to learn to play,” says Nancy Heebsh of Findlay who, along with husband Dick, is credited with bringing pickleball to the city. “We just bring them in and teach them.”

A Paddletek paddle, manufactured by a Findlay man’s daughter and son-in-law in Niles, Michigan. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

The Heebshes retired in 2007 and became snowbirds in Tucson, Arizona, where they saw pickleball being played like crazy. Being former tennis players, they thought, “This looks like fun,” and were immediately hooked on the fast-paced game which combines elements of tennis, table tennis and badminton. Pickleball is played on a court about two-thirds the size of a standard tennis court, meaning there is less ground to cover. Most games are played as doubles, though singles play is perfectly acceptable.

Upon returning to Findlay, the Heebshes struggled to find others who had heard of the game or securing a place they could practice. They and a few others got by using chalk to scratch out a makeshift court at the old tennis courts, and playing at unused school courts in the winter. They proposed the sport to John Urbanski, then-head of the city’s senior center, knowing that he was looking for a way to transform the center’s image. Urbankski, too, was immediately hooked and began ardently promoting the game.

Pickleball quickly picked up a dedicated following at 50 North, based on the game’s ease of learning, its less-intense stress on the joints and its social nature. Space constraints and age limits at 50 North, however, caused the growing club to stagnate, making the new courts an even greater gift to players of all ages.

While Dick Heebsh believes the game has picked up speed because more seniors are “looking for some activity,” Nancy points to its interactive and intergenerational merits.

“It’s an extremely social group. Men can play with women and young can play with old,” she says. “It’s a game where you can laugh at yourself and you can laugh at your opponent. It’s very, very social.”

Les Miller, a retired Findlay school principal, first learned about the game while visiting his in-laws in Florida 30 years ago. He continued to play pickleball on return trips to Florida, and has enjoyed watching the game catch on among players of all ages here in his hometown.

He calls the game a “great equalizer” among kids and adults, adding its intergenerational nature is “the true beauty of it.”

Devotees say the game is also incredibly quick to learn, even for those lacking a natural athletic inclination.

“I never played a sport, never was very athletic,” says Greta Schrock of Findlay. But after a friend introduced her husband Dick to pickleball, Greta says, “We went out and gave it a try and I could play the game.”

The Schrocks manage the club’s Facebook page and note the game does have a competitive side, though this club is “much more about the social,” Greta says.

“We have fun,” Miller agrees. “We laugh and yell and interact.”

Newcomers arriving in the company of Dave Beltz of Findlay can even try out a few paddles and, if they find a weight they like, buy the paddle on the spot.

The paddles are made by Beltz’s daughter and son-in-law under the brand name Paddletek, which got a “typical garage start” in Scottsdale, Arizona. Beltz says the couple first played pickleball while visiting Beltz’s sister in Pemberville, who had a court set up in her driveway.

“You couldn’t pull him off the court,” he says of his son-in-law, adding he quickly became “bound and determined that he could make a better paddle.”

The Paddletek products are now manufactured in Niles, Michigan, where Beltz says “they’re really going gung-ho.”

For more information about the club, email Dick and Greta Schrock at dgcschrock@gmail.com. Or, just drop by the pickleball courts and take a few swings.

Facebook: Flag City Pickleball Club

Griteman: 419-427-8477
brennagriteman@thecourier.com
Twitter: @BrennaGriteman

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