Throw up a hand if you’ve ever attempted the dink fake or backhand punch. How ‘bout the centerline ace or overhead smash?

Oh, yeah, we see all you picklers out there.

The fastest-growing sport in the U.S. three years running, pickleball fever rages here in the Fox Valley, where it’s common to see weekend wait lines snaking along the chain-link boundaries of outdoor courts with players of all ages and experience levels eager to announce: We got next.

“From inquiries to emails, pickleball interest has skyrocketed,” says Brad Schmidt, the Fox Valley Park District’s racquet sports and golf general manager. “I’ve got a list that keeps growing with people who are interested in both learning how to play and opportunities to play once they get acclimated.

“Pickleball can be however you want to define it – competitive sport, recreational activity with family and friends, a cardio workout. And there’s a social element attached, which makes it even more attractive and enjoyable.”

To keep pace with swelling community interest – which clearly aligns with booming national trends – the Fox Valley Park District has developed and installed programming dedicated solely to pickleball, with options both indoors and out.

Upcoming opportunities include Pickleball Clinics at Hupp Park, Vaughan Athletic Center and Prisco Community Center; and Pickleball Mixers at Prisco.

Additionally, picklers from hardcore enthusiasts to casual volleyers to newbies can participate during open gym hours at the following locations/times, which will remain in effect until Memorial Day:

Vaughan Athletic Center: Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8:30 a.m. to noon.

Prisco Community Center: Tuesday and Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.; Friday from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Sunday from noon to 2 p.m.

Eola Community Center: Monday and Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Open gym at each of the three facilities is $5 for residents, and $7 for non-residents. Fox Fitness and all-inclusive members play at no charge.

‘Total community’

Last spring, the FVPD added Hupp Park to its suite of outdoor pickleball facilities. Located at the southeast corner of Orchard Road and Illinois Avenue on Aurora’s west side, Hupp joined Simmons Park on the city’s east side as District locations with regulation pickleball-only courts. Goodwin in North Aurora and Austin in Montgomery feature tennis courts that can be converted for pickleball play.

Rebecca Norris got her invitation to the pickleball party in 2018. A group exercise instructor at the Vaughan Center, Norris joined a group of students after class to knock the ball around in the fieldhouse. Hooked in no time, Norris consulted YouTube videos for rules and strategies to learn and sharpen her game.

“I didn’t have any racquet experience at all … if you get familiar with the rules and the way the ball bounces, you can kind of stumble your way into it,” says Norris, now a dedicated player. “It’s a hard workout but doesn’t feel like one if you’re enjoying what you’re doing so much.

“It’s for the fun and the people, but it’s also for the calories. Pickleball is total community.”

158% growth in last 3 years

Invented in 1965 by three friends in a suburban Seattle backyard, pickleball comes from humble beginnings. It took 25 years for the sport to be played in all 50 states (1990), and USA Pickleball – the sport’s governing body in the U.S. – didn’t come around until 2005.

The Sports & Fitness Industry Association has named pickleball the nation’s fastest-growing sport in each of the last three years. Participation nearly doubled in 2022, increasing by 85.7% year-over-year and by an astonishing 158.6% over three years, according to the SFIA. And with 8.9 million participants in 2022, the number of new picklers exceeded the total number of pickleball participants in 2021.

To date, there are nearly 11,000 USA Pickleball-registered facilities in the U.S. For an official perspective during construction of Hupp Park, the FVPD last fall reached out to Chuck Mencke, chief marketing officer at USA Pickleball.

“This whole ecosystem has been built up around the sport,” Mencke said. “It’s everything from folks putting DIY courts in their backyards, to parks and rec (agencies), to HOAs, to national franchises with family-friendly restaurants in conjunction with dedicated pickleball courts.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth at the grassroots level and casual, recreational players numbering in the millions. People just really enjoy playing pickleball – and there’s no replacing that.”

For more information about pickleball programs and open gym, call the Vaughan Athletic Center at 630-907-9600 or Prisco Community Center at 630-896-8606.