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Pickleball takes hold in Greater Grand Forks

Myron Johnson smacks a shot while his doubles partner, Stacey Wright (right), watches Thursday night at the pickleball courts at East Grand Forks' O'Leary Park. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service1 / 4
Steve Scholand hits a forehand shot while playing pickleball at O'Leary Park in East Grand Forks on Thursday night. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service2 / 4
Terri Scholand rallys at the edge of the kitchen Thursday night at the O'Leary Park pickleball courts in East Grand Forks. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service3 / 4
Myron Johnson hits a dink shot into the kitchen Thursday night at the O'Leary Park pickleball courts.Nick Nelson / Forum News Service4 / 4

GRAND FORKS — Myron Johnson attempted to introduce the sport of pickleball to Greater Grand Forks seven years ago.

Johnson picked up the racquet sport—which takes certain elements from tennis, ping pong, racquetball and badminton and morphs it into its own unique sport—while wintering in Florida.

But he had nobody to play with in Grand Forks.

So, Johnson, now 69 years old, got an explainer article in the Herald. He successfully lobbied the City of East Grand Forks to put in two pickleball courts at the end of the tennis complex at O'Leary Park near VFW Arena. He did an interview on KNOX radio.

And then he waited.

That first summer, he lured three new people to play.

"It was slow to take off the first few years," Johnson said.

But now, Johnson's vision for pickleball in the community is taking hold.

There are so many new players that the City of East Grand Forks has turned nearly the entire O'Leary Park tennis complex into pickleball courts to accommodate for the demand. After having two permanent courts from 2011-17, there are now six permanent courts and two more portables for eight total.

The latest courts were built this month.

The regular players also have formed an official pickleball club that organizes places to play in the winter and will host a tournament in East Grand Forks for the fourth year in a row from Aug. 3-5.

The weekly outdoor pickleball sessions—5:30-8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 4-6 p.m. Sundays at O'Leary Park—are typically drawing around 20 people.

The winter sessions—6-8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at UND's Hyslop Sports Center—draw as many as 30.

"It's amazing, we're growing by leaps and bounds," said East Grand Forks resident Veronica Whitehead, who was the first person to join Johnson back in the summer of 2011. "We have so much enthusiasm for the sport. I think what has really helped us is that we now have a committee, and the East Side Park Board has been very accommodating and has worked with us to help us grow."

Why pickleball?

Why has Greater Grand Forks become the latest community to jump on board with the game?

Members say there are many reasons:

1. It's a good workout, but not too taxing. A pickleball court is half the size of a tennis court and the Greater Grand Forks group plays almost exclusively doubles. So, there's not nearly as much movement required as tennis.

"I noticed pickleball isn't as hard on my body as racquetball," said Whitehead, a former marathon runner. "Pickleball is a much more gentle game. You can play hard and get a great workout."

2. It's cheap. It's free to play at O'Leary Park in the summer. Club members will provide paddles for anyone who wants to try it out. Balls are provided for free. If you get hooked, a paddle costs between $50-$120.

3. It's flexible. Players can show up and leave any time during the allotted hours, and they can play as many or as few games as they want. Games are played to 11, and they last roughly 10-15 minutes. So, players are constantly shuffling in-and-out and changing partners and opponents throughout the session.

4. It's easy to learn. Club members give free lessons to those who are starting. While some members of the group are former competitive tennis and racquetball players, others had never played any sports until trying pickleball. "It's an easy learning curve," said Whitehead, whose son, Sam, has also become a regular. "If you hit the ball slightly wrong in tennis, it's probably going off the court. If you hit it slightly wrong in pickleball, there's still a chance the rally will continue."

5. It's sociable. Since the Greater Grand Forks group plays doubles, there are always three other players on the court, and because the courts are small, everyone is in a close proximity to talk between points.

"Everyone is friendly," said Scott MacMillan, who started in 2015. "The camaraderie is great. It's a fun sport. Anybody can play. It's just been great to see it grow. It was just a small group, and now all of the sudden people are bringing friends, and more friends, and it's great."

6. Age and ability levels are easily blended. The Greater Grand Forks group varies in age from 19-75. And age doesn't dictate ability level. Johnson, who will turn 70 this year, is one of the group's most dominant players. He has been part of the first-place doubles team in two of the three East Grand Forks summer tournaments.

"We had a guy who used to play named Don, who was in his 80s, and he could place the ball wherever he wanted," MacMillan said. "It didn't matter how young you were, Don would make you look silly."

The future

The Greater Grand Forks group is planning to expand again this winter.

In the winters from 2011 to 2016, it used two courts at the YMCA. Last winter, it had six courts at Hyslop. This winter, it's planning to have nine courts at Hyslop in the old gym that used to host the UND men's and women's basketball teams.

This is the growth that Johnson hoped to see when he introduced the sport to the community seven years ago.

"Myron is the godfather of pickleball in Grand Forks," MacMillan said. "He's always there early cleaning off the courts and getting them ready. He's always organizing and encouraging people to play."

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 13th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016 and 2018, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He also was the NCHC's inaugural Media Excellence Award winner in 2018. Schlossman has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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