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Pickleball gains popularity among seniors

Seniors play pickleball at Birchwood Tennis and Fitness Club in Clarks Summit, PA
Seniors play pickleball at Birchwood Tennis and Fitness Club in Clarks Summit, PA

Instructors and players say it's a low impact sport that helps seniors stay active and social.

LuAnn Jenkins is learning how to play pickleball with a group of seniors at Birchwood Tennis and Fitness Club in Clarks Summit.

“It’s the best exercise. I mean, I walk and I do other things, but this is actually, you know, getting my heart pumping," she said. “And we’re all learning at the same time, so no one feels insecure or like they can’t do it. We’re really doing well and most of us want to continue on."

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the country, according to a research report by SFIA, or the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Pennsylvania is catching on. But its appeal to seniors isn’t new.

Anastasia Vaganova is the Pickleball Coordinator for Birchwood Tennis and Fitness Club.

“That’s a normal thing, to see on the pickleball courts, it doesn’t matter where, anywhere in the country," said Vaganova. She is a certified pickleball coach who has taught players aged 4 to 94 how to play.

“There’s kind of two types of pickleball players," says Elizabeth Karam, Managing Partner at Birchwood. "There’s one that really want to improve and get better, and progress with the sport, and there are others that just want to use it for the social interaction that is also healthy, because they’re moving around and not just sitting.”

“They socialize here, they meet new players, they get to play and they’re improving their skills if they’ve played before. I know a lot of players come here from Florida so it’s a great way to continue playing," says Vaganova.

“I go down back and forth to Florida quite a bit, and I started playing in Florida about seven years ago," said Don Kalina. "And I got really hooked on it, when I first started playing I was playing five days a week. I really got addicted to it. And when I come up north, it wasn’t as prevalent as it is down south. Now, it’s starting to really grow.”

Thanks to a recent renovation at Birchwood, Kalina no longer has to drive 40 minutes to play in Pennsylvania. In April, Birchwood installed four permanent pickleball courts and replaced the clay with hard surface, so they now have up to eight pickleball courts.

Jane Risse is the Executive Director of The Greenhouse Project, a nonprofit based in Scranton that provides programs for people of all ages to promote wellness. She worked with Birchwood to create this free 4-week into class for seniors.

“I took a class when I was on vacation last year, and I fell in love with it. I thought, this is great for an older adult to take a class and learn," she said. "So I decided to offer that as part of the Greenhouse Project programming. We have a partnership with the Lackawanna County Area Agency on Aging and they provide funding to prevent disease and isolation in older adults, so this is the perfect fit for us, and them.”

The Greenhouse Project’s first class filled up so quickly, they added a second one. Risse says they hope to continue the partnership, because there’s a waiting list.

“It’s becoming a part of their lives, they’re enjoying it so much," says Mikhail Fomenkov, an instructor. "So they’re learning a lot of strategy, they’re trying to do better, improve their strokes, and be more consistent with their ground strokes.”

According to USA Pickleball, about 33% of the sport’s core players are over 65. So why do seniors love it so much? The pickleball coaches at Birchwood, who are also professional tennis players, explain.

“Comparing pickleball to tennis, I would say pickleball is far less intimidating," says Karam. "I have found that anyone, particular if you have some athletic background or eye hand coordination that you have used in the past, it is really easy to get good and be able to rally with people, it is more challenging to get great at it.”

“It’s very hard to get injured playing pickleball. So that’s another good thing. The ball is quite light, the racquet is quite light, so it’s not affecting your elbow or your shoulder, it’s very light on your body," Fomenkov says.

“I had a triple bypass in February of 2019, I had a knee replacement," Kalina said. "So your limitations are your mind.”

Haley joined the WVIA news team in 2023 as a reporter and host. She grew up in Scranton and studied Broadcast Journalism at Marywood University. Haley has experience reporting in Northeast Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley. She enjoys reporting on Pennsylvania history and culture, and video storytelling.

You can email Haley at haleyobrien@wvia.org