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Pat Kazlauskas of Riverhead playing Pickleball at Riley Avenue School. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO Pat Kazlauskas of Riverhead

Artie Johnson didn’t have an easy time getting pickleball going in Riverhead.

When he built a court in the Calverton complex where he lives, only a few people bothered to play. Determined to spread word of the game he fell in love with down in Florida, he took his fight to Riverhead Town Hall.

But even there, the first few times he showed up, he got no results.

“I started getting a reputation,” the 71-year-old retired police officer said. “They started calling me ‘pickleball guy.’”

His persistance is beginning to pay off. 

Two years after finally agreeing to host a pickleball demo in the town, Riverhead’s recreation department now has a full roster of nearly three dozen pickleball players over the age of 55 gathering to play one night a week throughout the winter.

Riverhead recreation program coordinator Jim Janecek said it’s the fastest growing program the department has ever launched.

“We had 20 people sign up right away for the first demo,” Mr. Janecek said.

It’s in line with what’s been reported around the country: Pickleball is on the rise.

The sport is similar to tennis, but played on a badminton court with a lowered net, using a wiffle ball and ping pong paddles. The shorter court makes it more appealing to the growing number of baby boomers looking to stay fit.

Not unlike how the program slowly developed in Riverhead, the creation of the game was also slow to get off the ground. While it’s only begun to rise to national prominence in the past decade, it was actually invented — by a U.S. Congressman, no less — in the mid-1960s. Legend has it that Representative Joel Pritchard of Washington created the game when his family couldn’t locate a shuttlecock on vacation and instead used a wiffle ball.

Mr. Johnson, an avid bicyclist and vocal advocate for senior health and fitness, said he was first introduced to the game in 2006 at his winter home in Fort Myers, Fla. The program became so popular down there they now have as many as 40 players playing three nights a week.

Mr. Janecek said Riverhead will expand its program this year to continue in the spring and summer.

“Before we started, I didn’t realize how many people were interested in pickleball,” he said.

The sport is appealing to seniors because there’s less ground to cover than other racket sports, Mr. Janecek said.

“It’s an easier game than tennis,” said Mr. Johnson, who hopes the town will consider building a pickleball court at the Enterprise Park in Calverton. The sport is currently being played indoors at Riley Avenue Elementary School in winter and outdoors at Stotzky Park and South Jamesport Beach in the warmer months.

Mr. Johnson said he’s glad the program is catching on.

“I believe in an active lifestyle,” he said.“ You have to be active to stay healthy. I really believe that It’s just so important at our age.” 