For Okie Heimuli, it was a natural progression from playing tennis as he turned older and that court became too big for him to chase down balls.
For Ana Manavahe, it was a surprising progression from apathy about her husband’s hobby to curiosity and, then, affinity.
More than a hundred west-siders like them migrate to parks across the Salt Lake Valley and plant their folding chairs on nearby lawns. If there’s a playground, their kids will play on it. Sometimes they hold communal picnics. But the main attraction is the country’s fastest-growing sport: pickleball.
“It is a very fun and addictive game,” Manavahe said, “I think especially for those of us who are aging older and older, this is a fun game.”
That’s what brought together these members of the Die Hard Pickleballerz Club. Anyone is welcome to join, but most are Polynesians living on Salt Lake City’s west side. They don’t have a website or social media, but they do have a bustling in-person presence.
Word has spread from home to home, starting in the Glendale neighborhood and traveling through families to other Rose Park, Poplar Grove and other areas. They crowd the makeshift courts in a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in the winter. When sunnier temperatures emerge — like of late — they go outside. But they venture far away from home.
“Why do these people have to travel to Riverton, have to travel to Tooele, or far north?” Heimuli, the club’s president, asked. “Because we don’t have courts on the west side.”
On a recent Tuesday, some of the players trained at Sugar House’s Fairmont Park for an upcoming tournament with a team from Foster City, Calif.
Fairmont is one of their closest — and preferred — locations. Still, when Manavahe, who lives in Poplar Grove, drives past the often-empty eight tennis courts at Glendale Park, it makes her yearn for what they are missing.
New pickleball courts are coming
Salt Lake City plans to build pickleball courts at its much-anticipated Glendale Regional Park in its second phase of construction. Until then, the city has provided a temporary solution: painting blended lines in four of the existing tennis courts, so they can work for both sports.
But for the pickleball club, the lines are confusing, the net is higher, and the ball travels farther away in a larger space, making it tougher to fetch.
“Unless they played pickleball, they would understand what we mean. But I think their minds are fixed,” Manavahe said. “Is it because that area is a low-income area they just do as they like? It pushed me to think that way.”
The prospect of new pickleball courts west of the current tennis courts for the regional park is not that enticing either, the players said. That location is close to a rail line and a canal, which could be dangerous for their kids.
The city acknowledges that the blended lines aren’t ideal for either tennis or pickleball players, planner Kat Maus said. But that may change in the future.
City leaders plan to engage with the community this summer to determine whether to add the new courts or to repurpose four of the tennis courts into pickleball spaces. And there are also plans to put pickleball courts in other west-side neighborhoods.
“In our public engagement, we’ve heard that everyone is traveling to the city’s east side, where all the pickleball courts are, from the west side in order to engage in that sport,” she said. “So we’re working in other areas of the west side as well, in the Poplar Grove Park and in the Fairpark neighborhood to construct pickleball courts there as well.”
A family sport
Pickleball enthusiasts who play in or with the club would probably know Ifa Motuliki’s name. He’s a staple and a connector of the communities. Players know he’ll participate in the next match when they see his American Samoa flag paddle on the board.
The 71-year-old has a hard-to-miss laugh when he rushes to hit the plastic ball. And when it comes to advocating for the sport’s presence on the west side, his is one of the loudest voices.
Motuliki, one of the club’s co-founders, started like many other pickleball players — through tennis. He was president of a tennis club, which had fairly good participation rates. But nothing like the pickleball club the community started.
“If we had pickleball courts over there, watch it,” he said. “You would have a lot of people probably [playing] all day.”
He attributes the sport’s soaring popularity to its inclusivity. He can play with his grandkids, his neighbors and parkgoers from other communities. It’s also cheap. The community trains children for free and can play anytime a public court is open. For Motuliki, pickleball is more than a hobby that keeps him healthy and out of his house. It’s a way to build community.
“If we didn’t have pickleball, I wouldn’t be able to know these people here,” he said. “Isn’t it wonderful to come and [to hear] them call your name?”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.