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Three times a week, 73-year-old Sandy Miller wakes up at 4:40 a.m.
Decked out in a lime-green shirt and black visor, the Anaheim resident is on a mission to play pickleball in Tustin.
He gets on a 5:50 a.m. bus from La Palma, makes a transfer to a second bus, gets off at Red Hill and Sycamore avenues at 7:15, then walks to Currie Middle School.
He's on the courts by 7:30, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Pickleball, a fast-growing sport in the United States, is a cross between tennis and pingpong. While not yet available everywhere, programs have begun to pop up in Huntington Beach, Laguna Niguel and Fountain Valley in the last few years.
While there are other courts available for a fee, Miller prefers the Tustin ones, which are free and filled with a stream of familiar regulars. And he isn't the only one.
Chris Jackson, 57, makes the hourlong drive from Upland just as often. He's figured out the best freeways at the best times, and he says there just aren't any good outdoor courts close enough to him.
Plainly put, "It's a good group of people, and it's fun, and I have a Prius," he said.
In the last several years, pickleball's fan base has taken off, according to the USA Pickleball Association.
And as demand ramps up, Tustin officials have incorporated eight permanent, lighted courts into plans for the future "flagship" park, a 33-acre sports site at the Tustin Legacy. Following recent design meetings for the future park, a few neighbors have pushed back against pickleball, unfamiliar with the sport and questioning whether there is demand. The park's updated design goes before the Community Services Commission on Wednesday.
So what is pickleball? And what's the appeal?
GROWTH DURING LAST FEW YEARS
Invented in 1965, pickleball has only seen a huge jump in growth during the last few years, said Ruth Rosenquist, spokeswoman for the USA Pickleball Association. Armed with a large paddle and a whiffle ball, players serve below the waist and play to 11 points, with rules similar to racket sports.
"It's a very social sport, and what makes it unique is that it's pretty age- and gender-neutral," Rosenquist said. "What's so compelling about this game is you can improve with age; it's one of those rare sports where age doesn't seem to be as big of a factor."
She attributed the sport's demand partly to its "addictive" nature. More locations to play and equipment becoming available at big sporting goods stores have helped. Also, the association deploys ambassadors across the country and gives grants to schools. YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and schools are picking it up, and there is an international fan base as well, according to Rosenquist.
Though it is difficult to know how many people play, there are about 150,000 players in the United States, with an average of 41 venues for courts being added every month, Rosenquist said.
Tustin Legacy would become one of those venues, with eight courts to be built at the future sports park.
"I truly believe the pickleball courts are going to be very popular - one of the most popular things on that park site," said Parks & Recreation Director Dave Wilson.
Phil Dunmeyer, 71, is Tustin's veritable guru of pickleball.
According to players, he is the driving force behind the area's pickleball group. Dunmeyer, a retired Tustin Unified administrator and principal, drives up from San Clemente every day the tennis courts are open for pickleball - Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. He gets to Currie Middle School at 5:30 a.m. to set up, dividing the four courts into eight makeshift pickleball ones and putting up his homemade scorecards.
When the Currie courts opened up two years ago, just "four to six people showed up," said Dunmeyer, a volunteer instructor with the city's Parks & Recreation.
Nowadays, the roster is close to 150 people from across the county, he said. The courts are often packed full with doubles teams playing, with just as many people waiting on the sidelines. And while players often know each other, everyone knows Phil, who gives free lessons, supplies balls and runs the courts.
"A lot of people come for him," said Huntington Beach resident Doug Luciani, 51, calling Dunmeyer the "guru of pickleball."
On a bright Thursday morning, loud thwacks and pops echoed in the air, as people smack-talked their way to 11 points. It's a friendly and social atmosphere, with people chatting and switching in and out of games. The crowd and the ample, free courts are a draw to players like Jackson and Miller.
NOT JUST FOR SENIORS
At 80, Huntington Beach resident Marty Trifonoff is one of the oldest players. She started playing only five months ago, but has picked up the sport fast.
She admitted her tennis skills have helped, but that newcomers have an advantage: "You don't have any bad habits to unlearn."
As a relatively nonimpact sport, pickleball has become increasingly popular among seniors like Trifonoff. Played on a small 20-by-44-foot court, the sport requires less running than tennis and is easy to pick up.
"There are people playing pickleball, who - if they weren't playing pickleball - wouldn't be getting any exercise at all," Dunmeyer said.
It evens the playing field across ages. Unlike other racket sports, "I can compete with any 20-year-old in pickleball," said Rick Miller, 60, who teaches tennis at Tustin Hills Racquet Club.
But to some, the sport seems to be exclusively for seniors. Dunmeyer is hoping to change this with middle school pickleball demonstrations, and it is already part of physical education classes at some schools.
Miller said the name probably doesn't help. According to the USA Pickleball Association, the name may come from Pickles, the dog of one of the founders, who would chase after the ball and run off.
Actual pickleball courts, which are scarce in Orange County, could be an advantage for the city.
Dunmeyer is looking forward to the Tustin Legacy development, which would add eight courts to the makeshift 12 that can fit at the middle school. But at Currie, they are still tennis courts, and Dunmeyer is hoping the city might be interested in permanently converting them to pickleball and repainting the lines.
"The eight permanent courts at the Legacy will be far superior to what we have here," Dunmeyer said. "Because they're permanently lighted courts, they'll get a lot more use. ... It's really going to make a significant difference for activities and families in Tustin."
Having strong pickleball facilities would draw people from across the county and benefit all businesses, added Tracy Worley Hagen, former Tustin mayor who often plays three times a week.
In the meantime, Dunmeyer will keep coming to Currie at 5:30 a.m. During Memorial Day weekend, those courts will host the California Senior Games of Pasadena, a pickleball tournament that sends qualifying athletes to the 2015 National Senior Games. About 300 are expected to attend, Dunmeyer said.
"With the sport growing as much as it is, I think (the city) will find that the eight courts are going to be used considerably more than they ever imagined," Dunmeyer said.
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