OWATONNA — Roger Meyerhofer wanted to lose some weight.
He had retired and, by his own admission, was getting a little thicker around the middle. But he didn’t want to go the usual path of taking those inches off — things like walking or calisthenics or even spending time on the treadmill. Those methods, he said, got old and got old quickly.
“I wanted to find something fun,” he said.
It was about that time — three years ago during the winter — that he got introduced to pickleball, and in some ways it changed his life for the better.
“I liked it, I got to moving, and I met a nice bunch of people,” said Meyerhofer.
And that extra inches he had around the middle?
“In a year I took off about 30 pounds,” he said proudly. “It’s a pleasant way to lose weight.”
For the past seven months, Meyerhofer has been president of the Owatonna Pickleball Association — an election that he insists the Russians weren’t involved in. The association, which currently has about 175 members, plays year-round and conducts skills clinics about once a month for at least four or five months, including one held Wednesday morning at their dedicated courts in Morehouse Park.
“We have players of all levels and all ages — from kids to grandparents,” said Jerry Hartman, who holds the title of “head instructor” of the clinics.
Hartmann, who has only been playing pickleball for a little more than four years, has a background in other racquet sports — a tennis player from “way back,” he said, as well as a lover of racquetball and badminton.
Still, he insists that pickleball is easy to learn and doesn’t require living with a racquet in your hand for most of your adult life. And it’s a game that is easily picked up by older players as well, he said.
“Some people’s athletic skills deteriorate with age,” Hartmann acknowledged, though adding that pickleball has advantages to it that make it accessible to older players or even young players just starting out. “It’s a small court, and the ball doesn’t bounce real hard or fast.”
The court is smaller than a tennis court, much more the size of a badminton court, though, of course, with a lower net. The racquets are generally solid wood and look more like a giant ping-pong paddle. They’re perfect that way for hitting the ball, which is plastic with holes in it, much like a whiffle ball.
If that seems a strange combination — and to the uninitiated, it will — one needs to know something of the history of the game.
According to the USA Pickleball Association — yes, there is one, as well as the International Federation of Pickleball — the game was invented in 1965 near Seattle, Washington.
“Three dads … whose kids were bored with their usual summertime activities are credited for creating the game,” the USAPA website says.
The three men searched in vain for the equipment to play badminton on the property on which one of the men lived, but not all the racquets were there. So they improvised, using ping pong paddles and a whiffle ball. Eventually they lowered the net to about the height of a tennis net when they discovered how well the ball bounced on the asphalt.
Soon, the men created rules, keeping in mind, the association says, “the original purpose, which was to provide a game that the whole family could play together.”
That “original purpose” is evident in the Owatonna incarnation of the sport, said Renae Jeno, one of the original board members of the Owatonna Pickleball Association.
“It’s a family thing,” said Jeno. “I bring my grandchildren out.”
And she also likes the camaraderie that the game affords.
“It’s the fellowship — a good get together with good people and good exercise,” she said.
It would take 40-plus after the game was started in Washington state in 1965 that pickleball would be introduced to Owatonna. The game came to the city in 2006, first being played on modified tennis court in West Hill. It then moved to the National Guard Armory.
In 2012, the push began to be made to build some courts in Owatonna dedicated solely for pickleball. By September 2013, the four pickleball courts in Morehouse Park would be open for play, all paid for by private funds. The next year, the Owatonna Pickleball Association would become an officially recognize 501© (3) non-profit.
The growth of the game locally corresponds to the growth of the game nationally and internationally, local supporters say — a game that the USAPA calls “one of the fastest growing games” — if not the fastest growing game in the nation and the world.
The local association plays not only in Morehouse Park during the summer months, but moves indoors in October to the Christian Family Church. The association also hosts two tournaments a year — one on Mother’s Day weekend in May and one on the weekend before Thanksgiving in November. The Thanksgiving tournament draws 75 to 100 teams from the four-state area of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota. Last year, it even drew a team from Florida, who chances are were visiting relatives nearby for the holiday, said Hartmann
For more information about the Owatonna Pickleball Association, see owatonnapickleball.com.