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Pickleball on the rise in Alexandria

The Blind Squirrel Pickleball Club of Alexandria has tripled its membership since officially forming last April.

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Pickleball players game it up in March of 2021 in Aagard's Highway 29 South location on a taped-off corner of the facility.
Contributed photo.
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ALEXANDRIA — With 4.8 million players and 35,000 courts, Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the United States, according to The Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

Its popularity spreads from small-town fun to the professional level with big-name sports icons getting involved. According to National Geographic , Tom Dundun, owner of the Carolina Hurricanes NHL team, LeBron James, Tom Brady and tennis star Kim Clijsters have all invested in the sport in one way or another.

For those who do not know, pickleball is a sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong that can be played both indoors and outdoors. Players use a paddle and a plastic perforated ball — similar to a wiffle ball — and played with doubles or singles. The game is enjoyed by all ages and skill levels.

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Heike Fischer, left, and Brock Smith, co-administer the Blind Squirrel Pickle Ball Club.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Since its inception in 1965, the sport has grown immensely in popularity across the country. USA Pickleball's website states that its "membership reached the 50,000 milestones and ended the year with just over 53,000 members, a 43% increase from the previous year and the largest single growth year to date for the organization."

Google search data indicates Minnesota is the fifth most interested state when it comes to pickleball curiosity. And with help from the Blind Squirrel Pickleball Club, the sport is taking over Alexandria.

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"It is something that people can start to play immediately and it's very social," said Brock Smith, co-founder of the Alexandria club. "I play because it's fun. And as I get older — I'm 60 — it keeps me in shape."

Smith added that while the sport is largely played by folks in their 60s and up, there are plenty of younger generations involved as well. The club's youngest member is 13.

"I can't think of very many places where you can go where a 13-year-old feels comfortable approaching 50, 60,70 year olds, and asking them to play," said Heike Fischer, administrator for the club.

Smith started playing the game several years ago when he was living in California. When he moved back to Alexandria, he introduced it to his brother, Brent Smith, owner of Aagard Manufacturing.

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The location of the Blind Squirrel Pickleball Club is at Aagard's north end along South Broadway Street.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

According to Brock Smith, The Blind Squirrel Pickleball Club all started back in February of 2021. Smith and his brother lined two pickleball courts with painter's tape in an empty corner of Aagard's Highway 29 South location —the old Kmart building. They added a few temporary nets and invited friends and family to play. Within weeks, more than 20 people were playing the game.

In January of 2022, the two brothers installed a 5,400-square-foot section in the northeast corner of the building and constructed two of the “nicest pickleball courts anywhere in the U.S." They officially opened the club to the public in May of this year.

The name "blind squirrel" comes from Smith and Brent's eldest brother, Nevin Smith. When Nevin was first starting out, he would take wild stabbing swings to hit the ball, according to Smith. And although they weren't technically great swings, they'd sometimes be "amazing shots" to which Nevin would remark, "That was a blind squirrel shot right there." When Smith was thinking of names for the club, he remembered his brother's wild swing and thought it would make a great name. Thus, the name of the club was decided.

Today, the club has tripled its membership starting with nearly 50 members last May and accumulating over 150 today.

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Inside the club's location are two courts with netting around them to protect viewers from being hit with a ball, a ball serving machine for those looking to practice by themselves, and biblical passages scripted on the walls.

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The Blind Squirrel Pickleball Club's logo was designed by Alexandria's own Jeff Roste.
Contributed image.

According to Smith, the game works like this: Each round starts with an underhand serve hit from the outside line on one side of the court. The ball needs to bounce once on each side then it’s fair game to volley or let it bounce once. Players can’t volley while standing in the “kitchen,” an area on each side of the net. There it must bounce. Players score points when the other team hits the ball out of bounds. Only the serving team can score a point. The first team to 11 points, by a lead of 2 or more, wins.

Those looking to join the club are encouraged to contact Smith or Fischer at 760-305-3734 and 320-630-1900. Membership costs $25 a year which pays for the investment costs and utility bills. Membership grants you 24/7 access to the facility which can be reserved using an app called CourtReserve. Once you reserve a time slot, you receive a unique pin that unlocks the facility via a keypad.

Smith said they aren't looking to make money off the game, they just want to spread the joy of it.

"Our other hope is that when people come to play, we can share with them our joy of the game of pickleball and enjoy the love of Christ," Smith said.

The game was invented by Joel Pritchard, a former Washington state congressman, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum to make a game the whole family can enjoy.

Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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