Pickleball's popularity picking up: Item editor goes behind the scenes of Sumter’s growing leisure sport trend


A sport that began in 1965 with random objects and a badminton court rose from the ashes in the last year to become today's most growing sport in the U.S.

After COVID-19 shut the world in, only to push them out for recreational activity, pickleball grew more popular across the country and in Sumter.

Don't be fooled. No pickles are involved in the sport. The name originated from the pickle boat of crew races, which was the boat for leftover non-starters.

According to the USA Pickleball Association, the game began at the Pritchards' home in Washington state, where Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell created the game using a badminton court, ping-pong paddles and a plastic ball. Later, they created rules and kept playing as a way to keep the family together.

Today, pickleball still has that purpose in mind as enthusiasts create family groups who play daily and weekly.

Sumter County Pickleball Ambassadors is a family of more than 30 players who meet daily at the Palmetto Tennis Center and at local community HOPE Centers.

Susan Wild, recreation program and facilities director for the City of Sumter, said interest in the game rose in 2016, but it became an even bigger sport amid COVID-19.

"The sport was mostly played in clubs and resort areas but had impressive reports as a growing recreational paddleball sport," she said. "The tennis center staff worked with Wilson sports to come to Sumter and provide a demo session."

Players played on temporary courts around town with removable tape until May, when the Palmetto Tennis Center opened brand-new courts.

"The new Palmetto Tennis Center expansion with four pickleball courts were built and are currently utilized recreationally by the community and more organized pickleball game play by the Sumter County Pickleball Ambassadors," Wild said.

Pickleball Ambassadors Anita Kieslich and Eric Fazekas are two certified lead players in Sumter County who organized the group.

"He's the expert," Kieslich said as she gestured to Fazekas.

"I play pickleball a little all over the state," Fazekas said. "I travel around a lot and play in a couple of tournaments."

Fazekas got started in the game after COVID-19 kept him from playing racquet ball.

"I'm a racquet ball player, 20 years racquet ball playing. COVID kind of pushed us outdoors, so I've been playing (pickleball) the last year and a half, and I've played racquet ball very little over the last year and a half," he said. "I've learned that I love being outside, meeting new people, playing different people. … It's become something I really, really enjoy."

Kieslich started playing the sport for exercise and for something to do after her husband died.

"It was a Godsend for me," she said. "As a senior, we didn't have much to do."

Kieslich said the sport started with older community members, but it's a sport for people of all ages to play.

"You pick it up real easy," Fazekas said. "It's easy to learn, easy to get started. It doesn't take or require a whole lot of equipment or skill."

The sport is similar to ping-pong and tennis, but it's played on a badminton-sized court with different rules.

"There's a two-bounce rule, with the main feature of the pickleball is the kitchen. It's the 14-foot area across the net where you can't step into unless it bounces," he added.

The two became ambassadors through the USA Pickleball Association, gear for which Fazekas was decked out with from head to toe. It's an association that supports players across the country with grants and implementing courts in areas that have ambassadors who can teach the sport and its history.

"Us being here and having a point person," Fazekas said, "it's kind of my job and Anita's job to get you started."


They showed off their ambassador titles by teaching The Sumter Item how to play the sport on Oct. 27 at the Palmetto Tennis Center.

Andy Wilson and I played against Kieslich and Denise Weeks. Kieslich provided me with a paddle, which they offer to new players.

I understood the game quick. It is similar to tennis except for the underhand serving and playing with a plastic whiffle ball that has less bounce than a tennis ball.

The "kitchen" is a smaller no-volley zone space that takes some getting used to.

Wilson and Weeks were competitive at heart, and I'm sure I slowed my partner down. However, he was patient and had faith in my skill as a slightly-above-mediocre athlete.

The rules were new, the names were odd, and the scoring took half a game to finally understand. Wilson would not let me leave the game until I understood points were scored only on the serve, and the server moves from left to right each time he or she has scored a point.

To start a match, the score was 0-0-2, with two being the second server on a team.

I was proud to say I earned a Sumter Pickleball shirt at the end of the score to 11 after Wilson and I won the match. Kieslich even said I had potential and should come back to play.

"This group comes out just about every day of the week. They play pickup pickleball just about every morning and sometimes in the evenings," said Luke Whiteside, a certified instructor who is also known as "Pickleball Guy" at Palmetto Tennis Center. "It's growing in popularity. It's a pretty safe game. A lot of people that come out pick it up fairly quickly."

The tennis center has lessons available and has done programing in the past year for the sport.

"Our main program right now is we had a clinic. It was an open clinic," Whiteside said. "It was open every week."

Sumter County Pickleball Ambassadors plan to hold a clinic on Nov. 6 starting at 9 a.m.

Kieslich said the clinic will be a way to get new members involved or get the community interested in the sport.

"We want to expand," Kieslich said about the group and sport. "We want to extend it to the youth, those that work and, of course, Shaw Air Force Base."

"We'll take beginners who never played before," Fazekas said. "For the clinic, we just ask that people and kids who come, you focus and actually want to learn… We'll show them how to play."

Paddles are available for the clinic at the Palmetto Tennis Center. Anyone is welcome to play.

To sign up, call (803) 840-2117 or (803) 316-7174.