By 9 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, the wait to play pickleball at Flaherty Park’s gymnasium had stretched to nearly a half-hour.
Aaron Cooke, 22, sat on the bleachers and watched three simultaneous games being played while he waited his turn. When he started playing the sport two years ago, Cooke said, the gym wasn’t nearly as busy.
“Now you come here and have to wait 30 minutes to play a match,” he said.
Wake Forest has embraced the growing popularity of pickleball, which is similar to tennis but is played on a smaller court with a paddle and a Wiffle-style ball. The town will build four outdoor permanent pickleball courts at Flaherty Park in the coming year, a $122,000 project.
Now, players gather at 26 basketball and tennis courts throughout town where crews set up pickleball nets and paint lines.
Wake Forest hosted its first pickleball league last year, and registration is now underway for a fourth season that begins Sept. 1.
A few years ago, Wake Forest leaders had no idea about the game, said Meghan Hawkins, an athletic programs specialist for the parks and recreation department. But the town now encourages the sport, partly because it gets some people who are unable to play higher-impact sports up and moving.
Also, Hawkins said, pickleball players have been strong advocates for the town.
“They’re really big ambassadors for us,” she said. “They’re good to have on our side.”
The game can be fast-paced but is generally low-impact because the ball moves slower than in a tennis match. It has been popular among people in their 60s and 70s.
Pickleball was invented near Seattle in the 1960s. Some say it got its name because the game inventor’s dog, Pickles, was known to run off with the ball during matches, according to the USA Pickleball Association.
Jerry McInnes, 73, helped bring the sport to Wake Forest. He learned the game eight years ago during a trip to Florida, where it was already popular, and introduced it to his golf buddies back home.
They began to play pickup games on the street in front of McInnes’ house in the Heritage neighborhood.
“We used to chalk the lines and improvised a net,” McInnes said.
Eventually, they formed the Wake Forest Pickleball Club, which now has more than 200 members.
Wake Forest isn’t the only Triangle municipality taking notice of the sport. Raleigh opened the city’s first permanent outdoor pickleball courts at Method Road Community Center more than a year ago.
It’s unclear when Wake Forest’s permanent pickleball courts will be finished. Until then, players will undoubted gather at Flaherty Park, Heritage High School and the Soutehastern Baptist Theological Seminary to play on makeshift courts.
Cooke will likely be among them. He was the youngest player at Flaherty recently – proof the game isn’t just for retirees. He said he and a friend went to the gym a couple years ago to play basketball and ended up joining a pickleball game.
“You would be surprised,” he said. “There’s more people our age playing it, just not in Wake Forest.”
Chris Cioffi: 919-829-4802; @ReporterCioffi
Want to play?
Online registration for Wake Forest’s pickleball league is at http://wakeforestnc.recdesk.com/. To register in person, visit Wake Forest Town Hall, 301 S. Brooks St.; or the Flaherty Park Community Center, 1226 N. White St.