The exact genesis remains a mystery. Different sects offer varying origin stories. But the most futile branch goes back about four years and involves a parent. Twyla Anderson, mom to Amy Olson, went to the gym with some friends in Fargo, North Dakota and discovered a new obsession.
“She came back after playing this goofy sport called pickleball and we all made fun of her,” Olson said. “But she was talking non-stop about it. She said, ‘You’ve got to come play, you’ll love it.’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, mom, whatever.’
Fast forward to Christmas of that year. The Anderson/Olson families were together to celebrate and, with a thick layer of Dakota snow on the plains, Twyla convinced the rest of the crew to give her sport a try.
“We were like, ‘Wow, this is kind of fun,’ Olson said. “So, we played on and off throughout that year.
“The next Christmas my mom gets us pickleball paddles. Now, we’re fully in. She’s not subtle.”
It’s fitting that pickleball actually began because of a golf game. In 1965 on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, Washington, Joel Pritchard, who would later become Washington’s lieutenant governor, returned home from a round of golf with his friends Bill Bell and Barney McCallum to find their families sitting inside, frightfully bored. Not content to let a beautiful day go to waste, Pritchard tried to organize a badminton game but no one could find racquets or a shuttlecock. So, McCallum, the woodworker of the bunch, crafted some oversized ping-pong paddles out of plywood. A wiffleball was discovered in a closet and, with the badminton net lowered and a few boundary lines set, pickleball became a thing.
Today it’s one of the fastest growing sports in America as recreation centers find alternative uses for tennis facilities and a game that better fits an aging population.
Olson didn’t know any of this when she found herself inching closer to her mother’s obsession. “When (my husband) Grant and I lived in Terre Haute, Indiana, (where Grant was the linebacker’s coach for the Indiana State Sycamores) we had these great pickleball courts about five minutes from us and that was our favorite thing to do,” Olson said. “Then, when we came back (to Fargo, when Grant took a coaching job at North Dakota State), mom was really good (at pickleball) and Dad and (my brother) Nathan had gotten good. So, it has always been a family sport.”
It didn’t stay a family sport. Before long, Olson invited her good friend Ally Ewing to the pickleball courts.
Ewing got so hooked that this past Christmas, her sister-in-law gave her a personalized pickleball paddle with Ewing’s face on it.
Katherine Kirk was next in line.
“We were in Tampa this year (for the Pelican Championship) and (Katherine) needed a pickleball paddle,” Olson said. “So, she goes to Dick’s Sporting Goods and drops $400 on court shoes and gear. You don’t have to do much to talk Katherine into buying new shoes.”
Veteran players have been into pickleball for some time. When Olson goes to Palm Springs to train prior for the LPGA Tour season, eight-time Tour winner and two-time major champion Sherri Steinhauer organizes the pickleball games.
“Sherri introduced me to some great players out in California,” Olson said. “When I go out there, Grant’s not sure if I play more golf or pickleball. I’ll call at noon and he’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ and I say, ‘I just left the Pickleball court.’ And he says, ‘Do you even golf anymore?’”
Consummate competitors, the Olsons rose to elite level pickleballers during the pandemic. “There wasn’t a lot else that we could do,” Amy said. “So, there were about eight of us in Fargo that had this group chain. I’d get a text saying, ‘Courts at 2:00 p.m. today,’ It was almost every day that I was out there.
“I really enjoy being able to slam the ball on people. It’s an element you don’t get in golf. You can really let out your aggression. That aggressive, competitive part is very appealing. And the ball’s coming very fast. There’s no time to think. Golf is very cerebral because there’s so much time between shots. In pickleball, it’s bam, bam, bam, bam, bam.”
When the LPGA Tour season restarted in Ohio with the first Drive On Championship, Olson packed her paddles along with her clubs.
“In Toledo we had about 15 people out playing with us,” she said. “We had Cydney Clanton, Emma Talley, Jaye Marie Green, Sophia Popov, Anne van Dam – it’s become like a cult.”
One that pays, though. Last week, Olson was invited to play in the Fix Freezer Fargo Pickleball Shootout at Courts Plus, an elite round-robin tournament in her hometown and one that attracted the best players from surrounding states. Olson and her brother, Nathan won the silver bracket in the event.
“Grant had to work (the FCS college football season starts in February and will continue through the spring), so Nathan played with me,” Olson said. “He and I were seeded in the bottom in the silver bracket.
“I thought we did very well. Nathan doesn’t play that much so I thought we did great.”
No doubt the games will slow down once the golf season cranks up. But you can also rest assured that Olson won’t put pickleball away completely. The paddles will be packed, just like the golf clubs.