By JACK McNEEL
Pickleball has rapidly caught on throughout Kootenai County and particularly in Coeur d’Alene. It was unknown just a few years ago, but, like in much of the country, pickleball is exploding in popularity, especially with the senior population.
John and Letha Rodriques are not only responsible for much of the tremendous growth of pickleball in the Coeur d’Alene area, they have helped spread that enthusiasm with trips across the country as well.
The couple moved to Coeur d’Alene in 2004. John recalled the first time he saw a game of pickleball.
“I was in Mullan doing tile work around their pool and was up on scaffolding. Looking into the gym through Plexiglas, I saw kids playing this game. I said ‘what sort of stupid game is that with paddles and a whiffle ball?’”
Things have changed dramatically since that first introduction to the game. Letha commented, “After we’d played a couple of times, we were hooked!” That was about seven years ago.
Letha soon was keeping email addresses of people in the area who liked to play. She was asked to be an Ambassador for the U.S.A. Pickleball Association (USAPA). This involves promoting the sport, teaching clinics, and essentially being the contact person for the organization. “I now have about 375 people on my email list,” she said.
John noted that his wife is also the contact person for people who come from out of state, and she can advise them where they can play and what times the courts are open.
They have also become two of the better players in Coeur d’Alene. Letha laughed as she said, “I don’t know about that.”
John responded, “I would say we were best, but others have caught up, and some have passed us. The two strongest women in Coeur d’Alene are probably Letha and her partner, Selena Hoit. There are a lot of men who are strong players.”
Letha’s list of 375 names represents not only Coeur d’Alene but people from such other towns as Post Falls, Rathdrum, Hayden, and Sandpoint. She guessed that approximately 200 would be from Coeur d’Alene alone. The local North Idaho Pickleball Association (NIPA) has a membership that now numbers 140.
“Probably 60 percent are over 50, but we’re getting a lot of young people now,” said Letha. “The youngest we have is 14.” She added that most of the really top players come from a background in tennis.
The size of the court adds to the attraction for seniors. John explained you can put four pickleball courts on one tennis court. That allows for a lot less running.
“When you play doubles, each partner controls a 10–foot area. The whole court is 20 feet wide. From the net, back seven feet, is the no-volley zone, also called the kitchen, and a player cannot stand right at the net. Players volleying back and forth are actually 14 feet apart or more.”
“It’s a great social game,” Letha said. “That’s one of the biggest things. Almost anybody can play. It’s also one of the fastest growing sports, if not the fastest, in America. It’s also starting in a lot of other countries.”
Coeur d’Alene hosted a tournament in mid-August, their third, which brought together 324 players for over 600 matches. Players entered from 17 states and two Canadian provinces.
John served as tournament director—“a really cool experience for me,” he said.
Following the tournament, they immediately began debriefing meetings with plans for next year. He added that in the tournament 35 players had 5.0 ratings and a few had pro ratings.
The rating system goes from 2.5 to 3.0 to 3.5 and all the way to 5.0 and then pro.
“Each jump is a big jump,” John explained. “It doesn’t happen easily. I’ve been a 4.5 for two years and not real close to a 5.0 yet. Letha’s been a 4.5 for one year.” Having upwards of 35 players at 5.0 or professional at the Coeur d’Alene tournament gives some idea as to the quality of the event.
The couple’s enthusiasm for pickleball has led them to take trips largely for the experience of seeing what other communities are doing. They have enjoyed newfound friendships across the country. Their trip this past summer took them across the continent.
“Our trip lasted six weeks,” John explained. “We would play pickleball in the morning, drive four or five hours to the next city, and play that evening. We just did it over and over. We followed the USAPA route of places to play. We went to some little towns that had just one or two courts, but people were playing, all the way to New York.”
They went to Kansas City then dropped down to Branson, where they had also visited before. They crossed Missouri and visited small towns all the way to New York and then returned home via the northern loop through Chicago.
“It’s like a big family,” John exclaimed. “They welcome you. They challenge you. Everyplace we went they wanted us to play because we’re new blood. You get to a place where everybody knows everybody, and they say we’ve got to play them. We met some great people.”
This trip also taught them something about Coeur d’Alene pickleball.
“What came out of this was ‘wow,’ we really have good players in our area, we really do,” Letha commented.
Both John and Letha teach, sometimes in one–on–one situations and sometimes in clinics with a number of players. Many times, they do this free of charge, or possibly in exchange for dinner.
As enthusiasm and interest in pickleball has spread, so have the towns with pickleball courts. Numerous towns throughout Idaho, even some of the smaller communities, now have a court or two. Boise leads in sheer numbers of courts, but Coeur d’Alene would be higher on a per-capita basis with 30 courts within the city limits. Twin Falls added six new courts this year and have six more planned for the future. John says Lewiston has some really nice courts. The list goes on.
The rapid growth and need for more indoor courts is becoming evident in Coeur d’Alene.
“This winter, we’re going to be packed, just packed,” John commented. The interest is growing so fast, we just don’t have enough—but we’re working on it.”
Hayden, Idaho, five minutes north of Coeur d’Alene, is also home to one of the nation’s premier pickleball paddle manufacturers, Selkirk Sport. Their family-owned, 6,000-square-foott facility produces a variety of paddles of various materials and styles, including the Ultimate Starter Paddle, an affordable paddle for those just getting into the sport.