A decade ago, the general public perceived pickleball as a niche hobby that helped senior citizens stay active. Few could have guessed that a game described as “table tennis with players standing on the table” would rocket to widespread popularity. However, as people increasingly gather and reconnect as pandemic worries waned, pickleball served as the ideal catalyst for people to gather to enjoy and master the game.
The Cincinnati Recreation Commission (CRC), which has existed since 1927 as the city-government entity that provides a range of athletic and socially oriented activities, has been the linchpin in developing the growth of the game. The factors propelling pickleball’s growth are myriad:
- The relaxed pace, smaller court and lightweight paddles make pickleball an affordable sport to undertake, and less physically demanding than other sports and therefore more accessible to people of all fitness levels.
- The game’s mellow flow engenders a balance of competitive play and sociability that encourages connecting with fellow players around more than just the game.
- In a similar vein, defying the polarized patina of our current cultural zeitgeist, pickleball gathers people from different generations, economic status, political viewpoints, and cultural backgrounds in a positive, supportive setting.
Currently, the CRC is operating 73 pickleball courts at nine outdoor and ten indoor facilities, with some dedicated to the game and others marked for joint use as tennis and pickleball playing surfaces. Pickleball’s burgeoning popularity in the Queen City has happened organically as people found new ways to keep fit and make friends. The CRC’s resident pickleball specialist, Melaine “Lani” Lomax, deserves an ample share of credit for helping foster an encouraging and inclusive atmosphere.
Lomax retired in 2015 after a 31-year career as an English and physical education teacher with the last 25 years at Cincinnati Public Schools. She’d long enjoyed an array of sports but was eager to try a new sport that was easier to adopt as she got older. In 2016, after her mother passed away, she was also looking for a new way to connect with people and work through grief and transition. Pickleball checked all the boxes.
“It was an easy game to pick up, and the joy and connection that people found in playing the game was contagious,” Lani said. “I fell in love with the game and was eager to share it as an opportunity for exercise and community for others. We have pre-teen players, and players who are nearly 90. It’s exciting to bring people together like this.”
She said that pickleball encourages participants to be present in the game: “As we become adults, people become less able to live in the present moment. Pickleball encourages people to concentrate on the game and the people right around them. It’s just the four people together on the court; the game goes better and is more fun if people are talking to each other.”
She’s been in this role with CRC since March 2022, and she currently teaches four classes per week with up to 25 students per class. Fellow CRC staffers Marion Jenkins and Eric Clark lead an additional two pickleball classes per week. An eight-week course of weekly lessons costs $60. CRC maintains women’s, men’s, and mixed leagues in the winter and spring, with each league accommodating up to 20 teams for weekly matchups.
Lani offered words of advice for inexperienced players: “Move your feet, keep your eye on the ball, turn your body when you hit the ball, and talk to your partner. A newbie who takes my class will learn the rules, where to stand, how to serve, volley and return, and how to anticipate where the ball will land. But, most importantly, we try to keep it fun.”
Pickleballers who’ve learned the game through CRC thoroughly enjoy the relationship-building aspect of the game. Angie Holtgrefe started playing during the latter years of her career as a postal worker, and again after returning from a brief move to Arizona after she retired. She appreciates that, as people’s daily lives increasingly put them in silos, pickleball bucks that trend by bringing senior citizens and college students, and doctors and restaurant workers, together for a friendly game.
“I started playing as a stress outlet for caring for my father-in-law after he coped with Alzheimer’s,” she said. “Pickleball allowed me to vent my aggression and get past feelings of self-pity. It feels like a playground; sometimes I’ll just read my head back and shout, ‘I love this game!’”
She praises Lani as an inspiring leader, mentor, and teacher, and that she excels at encouraging and motivating players. Angie noted that Lani had fostered such camaraderie among their group of players that they will be flying to the Caribbean in October for an international pickleball tournament in Turks and Caicos.
Angie wants to pass along one piece of advice she learned from Lani: “Bend your knees.”
Rhonda Moore Bedall is a Clifton resident and pickleball aficionado who retired as executive director for Pro Seniors, a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono legal assistance for low-income senior citizens. She took her first lessons from Lani at the North Avondale CRC facility, and then began playing regularly at its Clifton center. She competed in the CRC pickleball league and enjoyed the thrill of competition (noting that she and her partner lost to the eventual champions, who were more than 20 years younger), but, reflecting Lani’s encouragement, prefers the game’s social aspects.
“It can be hard at times to compete against friends,” Rhonda said. “I prefer games with zero pressure.”
Like Holtgrefe, Rhonda will be joining the Turks and Caicos junket. She praises Lani for inspiring the togetherness that would inspire such a trip among players who might not otherwise connect.
“She’s a great teacher and very supportive,” she said. “Lani inspires togetherness.”
For more information about CRC’s pickleball program, click here