Pickle Play 

Rasmuson spearheads sports movement

Rarely in life has he found himself spearheading a trend, movement, craze or faction. I know Tim DeChristopher, and he is no Tim DeChristopher. Even in the realm of fashion (his wife will roll her eyes when she reads this), John Rasmuson has been mostly acquiescent. The closest he came to fashion innovation was wearing desert boots when Bass Weejun loafers were de rigueur at the University of Utah. That was in the 1960s, about the same time Pickle-Ball was invented. All these years later, Rasmuson is surprised to find himself in the vanguard of Pickle-Ball in Salt Lake City. Reluctant but excited, he hasn’t felt this way since he bought a chainsaw to cut down a big-ass pine tree in his backyard.

Pickle-Ball is a game invented in 1965 by a congressman and his pals. They lived in a neighborhood near Seattle. The name comes from a cocker spaniel named Pickles who liked to grab the ball and run. The game is played on a scaled-down tennis court with a wood or fiberglass paddle and a perforated-plastic Wiffle ball. It is all the rage with “active seniors” because it is a gentler game than tennis, less aggravating to such worn-down body parts as knees. Pickle-Ball, Inc., describes it as “a sport where shot placement, steadiness, patience and tactics have a far greater importance than brute power.” It is flourishing in retirement enclaves like Sun City, San Antonio and St. George, where it is more popular than knee replacements. One adults-only community near Orlando has 44 courts. That may exceed the total number in Utah.

Though his best days are behind him, Rasmuson is a pretty good tennis player. He plays three days a week. But his knees complain, and it is harder and harder for him to follow the ball in artificial light. He senses Pickle-Ball is the future for him. He was introduced to it by chance. A former boss, visiting from Wyoming, mentioned he was playing two hours a day at the Sheridan YMCA. Intrigued by his description of the game, Rasmuson subsequently called the Sports Mall to ask about Pickle-Ball. “Never heard of it,” they said with a laugh. At the Salt Lake Swimming and Tennis Club, there were no plans for any tennis-court conversions because nobody wanted to play Pickle-Ball, they said.

Rasmuson and his wife eventually drove to Sheridan for an introduction to the game. They met their friends at the YMCA just before 8 on a Friday morning. It took only five minutes to set up the portable net in a high-ceilinged gym, and within an hour, they were playing mixed doubles competently.

Rasmuson returned to Salt Lake City determined to be a Pickle-Ball proselytizer. Adopting a Field of Dreams’ strategy—if you build it, they will come—he visited the city’s senior centers. “What do you know about Pickle-Ball?” he asked. “Would you like to know more?” Some did. He petitioned the Parks Department to paint Pickle-Ball lines on the 10th East Senior Center tennis courts. They demurred. More accommodating was Troy Jannelle, the program coordinator at the Holladay Lions Recreation Center. He agreed to buy a portable net and mark off a court in the gymnasium.

Then Rasmuson heard about new outdoor courts in Ogden. He located John Gullo, the self-appointed Pickle-Ball patron who donated $60,000 to build four courts in a city park. Gullo, 47, likes to talk about the game. He began playing Pickle-Ball in St. George after bypass surgery in order “to get exercise and have fun.” Now, less than two years and 67 pounds later, he plays two to three hours a day, six days a week. “It is a health success story,” he says. What’s the interest level in Ogden? Rasmuson asks. “A year ago, we had six people show up to play,” Gullo replies. “There are now 133 members in the Ogden Pickle-Ball Association.”

The game is just taking root in Salt Lake City. There are no outdoor courts yet, but most Salt Lake County recreation centers offer indoor Pickle-Ball play once or twice a week. At a clinic at the Dimple Dell Recreation Center, Rasmuson talked with Tim Finger, a wiry, 50-something Pickleballer from St. George who has won gold medals in the Huntsman Senior Games. When he’s not on the road conducting clinics, Finger says he is promoting the game in the public schools. Every middle school and high school in St. George has added it to its physical education curriculum, he says proudly. Pickle-Ball has become so popular there that the city is building new courts to keep up with demand. Hurricane has new public courts, too.

I am not surprised by the vector of Rasmuson’s Pickle-Ball crusade. He is, after all, a Baby Boomer. He and his generation have long had a sense of entitlement along with an abiding interest in recreation and self-improvement. It seems logical that St. George is the wellspring of Pickle-Ball in Utah. It has all the essential ingredients: a density of aging Baby Boomers, a novelty racquet sport, the Huntsman games and plenty of sunshine. Had the Pickle-Ball craze leapfrogged Salt Lake City to land in Ogden without Gullo, it would have been remarkable. That it will develop in Salt Lake City is certain; it is definitely trending, as Gen-Xers say. As Rasmuson recedes, then, opportunity presents itself. What The Salt Lake Tribune did for tennis with its long-running “no-champs tournament,” City Weekly could do for Pickle-Ball. By re-orienting its annual beer festival to become the City Weekly Picklepalooza, John Saltas would gain fame and fortune by sponsoring good, clean fun for kids of all ages. 

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