When It Comes to Active Aging, They’ve Got Their Eye on the Ball
pickleball players pursue court upgrades as E.C. park is adapted for users of all ages
The first thing you notice on a warm mid-September morning is the pleasant chattering and laughter, then the gentle “ping” of a dozen wiffle balls being volleyed back and forth across a dozen nets. Peek inside the windscreens that surround the pickleball courts at Eau Claire’s McDonough Park, and you’ll see all 12 courts occupied by 48 players, with a handful more waiting on the sidelines for their turn.
The players, most of them around retirement age or older, are part of the Chippewa Valley Pickleball Club, an organization that’s grown to nearly 400 members and is responsible for transforming what was once a rarely used tennis court into one of the busiest hubs in the state for this fast-growing sport.
A few years ago, pickleball players raised funds to resurface the aging tennis court – which the city had considered removing – for pickleball use. While it has a lot in common with tennis, pickleball is played on a smaller court with a plastic ball and paddles. The adaptations make it attractive for players of all ages, and it’s especially popular with older adults in the Chippewa Valley. Most play mixed doubles, with four players swatting the ball around each compact court.
“Once you become aware of how important physical activity can be, you never become unaware.” –Marilyn Skrivseth
In recent years, six more pickleball courts were added, as have been a host of other park features. Many of these were dedicated over the summer, including areas for shuffleboard and bocce, a new playground, chess tables, exercise equipment, paved pathways to make features accessible by wheelchair, and a new path that offers scenic vistas of nearby Dells Pond, which was previously hidden from view.
The $600,000 fundraising effort was spearheaded by Marilyn Skrivseth, a retired UW-Eau Claire professor, coach, and athletic director. While she’s currently sidelined by a rotator cuff injury, Skrivseth says she still comes down to McDonough Park to socialize. “I literally just love listening to the laughter,” she says.
Especially for older pickleball players, the social connections are as important as the exercise, Skrivseth explains: She’s heard new players speak happily of suddenly gaining 300 friends when they join the club.
And the transformation of McDonough Park as a whole has helped make it more attractive for visitors of all ages, from kids who use the new playground equipment to dog wakers to the women who took part in a cardio drumming class on a recent morning, happily hammering away at large exercise balls.
“I’m excited the neighbor is really getting engaged,” Skrivseth said. “Parks can really build a sense of community.”
Improvements to Come
And the improvements at McDonough Park aren’t done yet. The Chippewa Valley Pickleball Club recently got the go-ahead from the Eau Claire City Council to raise up to $48,000 to make repairs to the original pickleball courts, whose surfaces are beginning to crack.
Greg Helgeson, a club member who is serving as a liaison to the city, said the group hopes to get bids on the project before the snow falls this winter. Ideally, the repairs can be made next spring of summer, he said.
Beyond that, there’s even talk among pickleball players that more courts are needed at McDonough Park. Around the region, courts of sprung up in Altoona, Chippewa Falls, Menomonie, Lake Hallie, and even indoors at the L.E. Phillips YMCA Sports Center and Eau Claire Fitness.
Considering the laughter and good-natured banter among the pickleball players at McDonough Park, it’s easy to see why the sport is popular. It’s relatively easy to learn, and provides a good workout (although it’s less strenuous than tennis because the court is smaller).
“The appeal is you can play at all ages,” explained Judy Mirr, the club’s president. Especially when played close to the net, in the area of the court dubbed the “kitchen,” Mirr said, “It’s a thinking game and it’s a finesse game.”
While many of the club’s members play other sports, Mirr said, for others pickleball is their main source of athletic activity.
“If you have any athletic ability at all,” quipped one player, “it’s easy to become a mediocre pickleball player.”
Joking aside, some local pickleball players are much more than mediocre: Greg Solfest of Eau Claire, for example, won a national singles championship earlier this year in his age bracket.
But don’t let the presence of top-tier talent intimidate you. Every pickleball player has to start somewhere, and the team is always happy to help beginners learn the rules.
“It’s an inclusive game,” Helgeson said. “We try to help people.”