BY MICHAEL KELLY
REXFORD — It is a funny name for a game, but the smiles May 22 in the gymnasium at Glencliff Elementary School had nothing to do with the way the word “pickleball” sounds.
They had everything to do with the fun the day’s participants were having playing one of the area’s fastest-growing sports.
“It’s kind of a mix between tennis and badminton,” said Ryan Funyak, a fifth-grader at the Niskayuna school. “I like both of those, and this is really fun.”
Ryan’s description of pickleball is pretty spot-on. Ria Van Niekerk, a parent of kids attending Niskayuna schools, teaches the game within the district on a volunteer basis. Recently, she wrapped up a once-a-week program at Glencliff that lasted five weeks for a dozen kids, but Van Niekerk has also conducted weekly pickleball programs at the Craig and Rosendale elementary schools, and did a two-day session at Iroquois Middle School for 600 students.
“That was amazing,” she said. “The kids loved it.”
Van Niekerk started playing pickleball several years ago. She and her husband were at the Schenectady Jewish Community Center for swimming lessons and saw people playing a game she didn’t recognize. Van Niekerk had grown up playing badminton in South Africa, and wanted to give the new game a shot.
“We tried it,” she said. “We never stopped.”
A couple of years after learning the game, Van Niekerk began teaching it at Glencliff. Some of the dozen players who played this spring with her were involved in the original program, such as fifth-grader Luke Dunne. In his fourth year playing pickleball, Luke said the game has gotten a little easier for him each year.
“You have to have really quick reflexes,” he said.
What you don’t need, though, is a lot of equipment. Pickleball — which can be played in doubles or singles fashion, like tennis — requires just a paddle and plastic ball, plus a net. Peter Briscoe, a Niskayuna resident who helps Van Niekerk with her school programs, said many area recreation centers now have places to play the game, adding boundary lines to their tennis courts for pickleball.
“It’s a different color paint and it’s the same size as a badminton court, so it doesn’t interfere,” said Briscoe. “You just move the net down a couple inches.”
Van Niekerk said the pickleball community in the Capital Region is a close one — and a growing one. She said when she started playing several years ago, there were a couple dozen people that regularly played in the area but now there are a few hundred.
Still, she said, she hopes to continue teaching the game to Niskayuna schoolchildren. The reason is simple.
“There are kids who have never heard of this game,” Van Niekerk said.