City commissioners are planning more space for the popular sport.
| 8:36 a.m. October 13, 2021
West Orange Times & Observer
Mix tennis with badminton, toss in a wiffle ball and stir it up with strong community support, and you’ve got a juggernaut with an earmark for expansion in the current fiscal year.
Pickleball began in 1965 as a niche sport. But when Dave Vander Weide was introduced to it, the game changed for Winter Garden.
“About 11 years ago, a friend of mine invited me up to The Villages to play,” he said. “I got beat up, but I liked it.”
A lack of pickleball players, and courts, in his Stoneybrook West neighborhood prompted Vander Weide to speak with the homeowners association. Interested parties were permitted to play on an outdoor hockey rink, using foldable nets.
“That’s where we originated, and then it just kept growing,” he said.
Within three years, Vander Weide and his friends were playing at Veterans Memorial Park after he discovered pickleball court lines already had been drawn on two of the four tennis courts.
“It got to a point where we were playing on all four tennis courts,” he said. “We never had any interference with tennis players, because they just weren’t coming out.”
Vander Weide then spearheaded the Greater Orlando Pickleball Club, which backed a 2016 tournament with 126 competitors. City officials then replaced two tennis courts with six dedicated pickleball courts, where daily play and yearly tournaments have inspired even more interest.
“We tracked it last year during the summer, and we were averaging 41 people a day between the mornings and the evenings,” said Vander Weide of attendance. “But then, in the fall, we were averaging about 100 people a day.”
Players begin arriving at about 7 a.m. every day; mornings and evenings are the busiest. A paddle queue system was adopted through which players place their paddles on a rack in the order they arrived at the courts. At the end of a match, the next players on queue claim their paddles and proceed to the next available court.
Requests for an expansion recently were answered by the Winter Garden City Commission during the 2021-22 budget hearings.
“We had allowed for $300,000 in the budget,” Winter Garden Mayor John Rees said of the pickleball court expansion at Veterans Memorial Park.
The plan will involve either building a new pickleball area with additional courts or converting the existing tennis courts to pickleball and building new tennis courts in another area of the park.
Aside from playing, the passion of the pickleball community is growing the sport. Vander Weide currently instructs Orange County Public Schools teachers interested in offering it at their school. And the city has worked with the pickleball community to offer instructional events and games during the Winter Garden Fall Heritage & Music Festival Saturday, Nov. 6.
Jim Steck began his pickleball obsession on the hockey rink in Stoneybrook West and estimates he’s made 30 to 40 new friends.
“For a lot of people, it’s a social activity,” he said. “It’s a smaller court than tennis, so you’re closer together, there’s more communication, and it’s just fun.”
As a designer and illustrator, Steck contributes to the local pickleball community by creating the colorful T-shirts worn by nearly every Winter Garden player.
“I take a lot of pride in having my work represent us,” he said. “We all contribute in our own ways. It’s like a big family here.”