The Right Age to Play

Chippewa Valley seniors are recognizing the benefits of an active lifestyle – and for many of them, pickleball is key

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Seniors take a swing at pickleball at McDonough Park
Seniors take a swing at pickleball at McDonough Park.

About five years ago, the City of Eau Claire was poised to remove worn-out, rarely used tennis courts at McDonough Park, a narrow strip of green space tucked away off Centre Street on the city’s near north side. However, responding to requests from a growing group of pickleball players in town, the city instead decided to convert them into pickleball courts.

“Anything that gets people using their brains and their bodies is a good thing.
Use it or lose it.” – Marilyn Skrivseth, Eau Claire pickleball enthusiast

In retrospect, it was an excellent decision. Pickleball – a paddle sport that’s a cousin of tennis, badminton, and table tennis – has exploded in popularity nationwide in recent years, particularly among senior citizens, and the Chippewa Valley is no exception. With the fundraising help of pickleball enthusiasts, the number of courts at McDonough Park was soon doubled to 12, and advocates have even bigger plans for the park’s future.

Those plans center on the concept of active aging: providing opportunities for people of all ages – in this case, the focus is seniors – to be physically and cognitively active.

“Anything that gets people using their brains and their bodies is a good thing. Use it or lose it,” explained Marilyn Skrivseth, an avid pickleball player and the driving force behind planned upgrades at McDonough. The cost of the $408,000 in park improvements will be split between a $204,000 grant to the city from the state Department of Natural Resources and $204,000 to be raised from private sources.  Skrivseth is optimistic that pickleball players – the local club has more than 300 members – and other resident will be generous enough to meet the goal.

“We plan to pack this park with lots of activities,” Skrivseth explained. McDonough Park is already far more active than it used to be: As Skrivseth eagerly described the park’s future on a sunny autumn afternoon, a group of women were picking up after a cardio drumming class while other seniors played pickleball on the nearby courts.

The city’s master plan for the park includes an expanded plaza space around an existing pavilion which will provide room for yoga classes and other gatherings. There also will be a set of looped, measured trails accessible to all kinds of pedestrians, including those using walkers and wheelchairs; space for kubb, shuffleboard, bocce ball, bean-bag toss, and other outdoor games; possibly outdoor table tennis tables; and improved electrical service. In the long term, the park will also be connected to the city’s ever-growing recreational trail system.

Skrivseth’s vision also includes more classes and educational programs for seniors; space for tai chi and other group activities; elevated garden beds: and a bluebird trail – a series of spaced nesting boxes that will appeal to both birds and bird-watchers.

“We always say people are ‘too old’ or ‘too whatever’ ” to be physically active, Skrivseth said. She wants to turn these “too people” into “can-do people” by pointing out all the ways they can get and remain active, which, she points out, “is the cheapest health insurance you’ve got.”

THE GREEN SCENE. Future plans for McDonough Park in Eau Claire, which already is home to 12 pickleball courts, include more elements aimed at keeping people of all ages active, including trails and activity space.
THE GREEN SCENE. Future plans for McDonough Park in Eau Claire, which already is home to 12 pickleball courts, include more elements aimed at keeping people of all ages active, including trails and activity space. Take a closer look.

Considering her enthusiasm for the benefits of physical activity, it shouldn’t be any surprise to learn that Skrivseth spent her career as an educator and coach: Before retiring, she taught in UW-Eau Claire’s Department of Kinesiology and was involved with Blugold athletics for 22 years, including 16 years as head women’s tennis coach.

Todd Chwala, the city’s community services manager, who oversees the city’s parks and forestry division, has nothing but praise for Skrivseth and the effort she has put into improving McDonough Park.

“The first thing that came to my mind was ‘heart and soul,’ ” Chwala said when asked to describe Skrivseth’s role. “(She’s) extremely knowledgeable in the area of active aging. She’s truly passionate and comfortable working within the structure of municipal government, which is great.”

While the city has more than 20 neighborhood playgrounds and parks with amenities that focus on youth, Chwala said that facilities appealing to older residents are lacking. “These folks want to stay active, and in my opinion it’s a wonderful movement,” he said. Once the improvements at McDonough Park are completed, Chwala hopes that the city can continue to partner to create active aging amenities elsewhere, too.

Skrivseth agrees, and hopes that Eau Claire can catch up to other cities, in the United States and worldwide, that have led the way in creating infrastructure that keeps older people active. Consider, for example, Barcelona, Spain, where there are 300 exercise parks designed for seniors.

“When you look at our parks, what have we done (for seniors) other than make them spectators?” Skrivseth asked rhetorically. The creation of the pickleball courts marked a change in approach for Eau Claire’s parks, and they have led to a “critical mass” that draw older people to McDonough, she said.

Skrivesth compares seniors becoming more active to a one-way bridge: Once they cross it and see the benefits, they’re unlikely to go back. “All you have to do is look around at all the people’s lives who have been transformed,” she said of the pickleball community. “They’re making friends, they’re losing weight, they’re having a blast.”

Pickleball offers functional fitness for seniors, Skrivseth explains: Stepping and reaching for the ball can help build skills necessary in fall prevention, while the sport improves the reaction time necessary to keep driving. Pickleball is easy to learn and can be played at a relatively slow pace, but it can also be intense, said Skrivseth, who estimates she’s taught the sport to about 200 people over the past two years.

While getting more active as we age does involve risks, Skrivseth acknowledged, it’s even riskier to stay home and do nothing. Getting involved in a sport such as pickleball not only helps seniors improve their physical health but also builds social bonds that stave off the isolation many seniors experience after the loss of spouses, partners, and friends.

“Some of these folks are the most competitive people I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s like it’s unleashed an inner child in them.”

Donations for improvements to McDonough Park can be sent to the Eau Claire Community Parks Association, ATTN: McDonough Park Active Aging, P.O. Box 741, Eau Claire, WI 54702. Learn more about the local pickleball scene by visiting facebook.com/ChippewaValleyPickleballClub or chippewavalleypickleballclub.com.