NEW PORT RICHEY — Pickleball is alive and well in New Port Richey.
The popular senior game that is well known throughout Arizona and other parts of Florida is steadily growing in popularity at the New Port Richey Recreation and Aquatic Center. On an average day, the gym is packed with up to eight doubles teams battling it out in round-robin style format.
"It's a game that anyone who has played tennis, racquetball or badminton in their past can pick up very easily," pickleball league organizer John Hilliard said. "I found out about the sport on the Internet, played in a few tournaments and haven't stopped since. I think people like the competition, the exercise and the fun atmosphere of a pickleball game."
The sport was first introduced to the aquatic center about a year and a half ago after two employees took a shot at a Guinness World Record by playing the first 24-hour pickleball match. After appealing to Guinness four times, Justin Lawrence and Jeffrey Baker eventually found a home for their record with the World Record Academy. That success helped spark what has become a pickleball revolution at the center.
At the Villages, a massive retirement community just south of Ocala, pickleball has nearly replaced shuffleboard as the favorite sport. With more than 100 courts, the community hosts major tournaments that attract players from all over the state, but Hilliard, 65, is happy just to have something closer to his Port Richey home.
"We're trying to get some round-robin tournaments going here, but you need around 12 teams ideally," Hilliard said. "I think more people will continue to come out and play because it's a great game for seniors and anyone can pick it up. The sport has an easy learning curve, so we encourage people to come at least 10 times, because if they come out 10 times, they'll pick it up enough that they can compete."
Daryel Jenks, 63, of Rochester, N.Y., was introduced to the game by his neighbor three years ago and has been playing ever since. He enjoys picking up his paddle at the New Port Richey rec center when he's in town on vacation.
"One of the things I really enjoy about playing is the people," Jenks said. "My method of working out before this was going to work installing sprinkler systems, so this is a lot more fun. I love the exercise this provides. I played a little tennis when I was younger, but at my age just coming out here and being able to move around like this and get it done means a lot."
Jenks played in a small tournament Saturday with his good friend and doubles partner Larry Mitchell, 60, of Palm Harbor. Mitchell has little experience in the sport, but thanks to Jenks and games at the aquatic center, he is coming around to playing regularly.
"I played baseball for years, but this is a better workout," Mitchell said. "I had never heard of it, but a Daryel (Jenks) introduced me to it and now I play three or four times per week. I travel up north sometimes and look for people to play with, but it seems like a lot of people haven't heard of it. Hopefully, it eventually gets as popular as it is down here."