Traverse City Pickleball Tourney Brings Players to Birthplace of the Sport in Michigan

Julie Bitely

| 4 min read

Pickleball main
About six years ago, retirement was looming for Nelson Asper. He was looking for a hobby to fill his free time.
What he found was the growing sport of pickleball.
The now 70-year-old is vice president of the Traverse Area Pickleball Association (TAPA). When he started playing he weighed 268 pounds. Hitting the court five to seven times a week has helped him shed close to 40 pounds, improved his health, and widened his social circle.
“It did basically transform my life, I guess,” he said. “My health is a lot better.”
Nelson and others in the broad Traverse City pickleball community, are gearing up for the Eighth annual Great Lakes Open Pickleball Tournament, which takes place September 20-22.
The Tier 3, USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) sanctioned tournament is expected to draw competitors from Canada and states as far away as Arizona. The indoor tournament will be held on TAPA’s new courts at the newest Grand Traverse Bay YMCA in Traverse City and is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
Asper said he can’t be sure what life would be like for him had he not discovered the sport.
“I don’t know if I’d be sitting on my fat rear end eating bon bons or what I’d be doing,” he said.
Gary Ford and George Powell were part of the initial group of people to play pickleball in Traverse City, one of the first places in Michigan to have a pickleball community. They established the first court in the parking lot of the yacht club in the mid 1980s and had a small league that played at noon in the summers on Thursdays and Fridays. They eventually worked with the YMCA to paint lines on one of the indoor basketball courts so they could play in the wintertime.
“Traverse City probably has the longest history of playing in the state of Michigan,” said Ford, president of TAPA and this weekend’s tournament director.
Since those early days, the sport has exploded in the region. Powell, who is the TAPA treasurer and the USAPA Northern Michigan Ambassador, estimated that upwards of 500 people in the area play regularly.
Players check out the new indoor courts at the new Grand Traverse Bay YMCA.
Players check out the new indoor courts at the new Grand Traverse Bay YMCA.
Demand for court time has led to the development of a number of facilities in the region, including the addition of six new indoor courts at the YMCA this summer, bringing the total number of indoor courts to ten.
The sport is similar to tennis, but there are distinct differences that make it more accessible. Because the court is smaller there are opportunities for longer back and forth volleys. Underhand serves mean there aren’t a lot of aces. A lighter ball and small paddle mean less impact on the body.
Pickleball courts are everywhere around the country and drop-in play is encouraged. Visiting the USAPA’s website allows you to search for places to play in most states.
In fact, Ford says the community aspect of pickleball has helped it gain traction as a viable sport across the country. It really took off in states known for their high population of retirees, such as Florida and Arizona.
When these “snow birds” returned from winters down south, their demand for pickleball led to its spread and popularity in northern states such as Michigan, and in particular, resort communities such as Traverse City where they tend to spend summers.
If you’re a pickleball player, you can likely find new friends to play with no matter where you go.
“There’s a huge social element that transcends just playing the sport,” Ford said.
Powell attributes the popularity of pickleball to the fact that it’s a great, full-body workout and something even more important – it’s fun.
“If you’re going to exercise, you might as well have fun doing it,” he said.
Discover pickleball this weekend at the Great Lakes Open in Traverse City. It could be just the fun, healthy hobby you’re looking for!
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