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Horseshoes, Pickles and Flying Discs

Cities Get in the Game with Alternative Sports


Aiming to meet the needs of residents who want to stay active and enjoy healthy competition, cities and towns are turning to nontraditional sports and activities in their parks.

City of Camden pickleball courts
Pickleball uses courts set up with the same dimensions as a badminton court, with a 36-inch net.
Photo: City of Camden.

Low-cost alterations, such as laying out disc golf courses in existing parks and green spaces or converting older tennis courts into pickleball courts, brings in locals as well as out-of-towners for afternoon fun, and even attracts regional tournaments.

Recreation directors say civic engagement is what makes their programs a success and the goal is to keep people active by offering as many different types of outlets as possible.

"Our return on investment is that we're offering something residents can't get without driving 20 to 30 minutes down the road," said Scott Sawyer, director of Newberry's Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department, who helped create the 24-court horseshoe park that brings the professional Horseshoe Tour to Newberry.

Close doesn't count
Only ringers count at the SummerFun Horseshoe Tournament held each April in Newberry, one of four stops on the Horseshoe Tour, where pitchers vie for cash prizes. They come for Newberry's 24 courts with pits of Kentucky blue clay.

SummerFun Horseshoe Tournament in Newberry

SummerFun Horseshoe Tournament in Newberry
Newberry serves as one of four stops for the SummerFun Horseshoe Tournament each year.
Photos: City of Newberry.

"Ours are a little different than most people have ever seen if they are used to the backyard horseshoes," Sawyer said. "It's the best horseshoe clay you can get. The horseshoes hit the clay and they stick."

The National Horseshoe Pitchers Association has been coming to Newberry for eight years. This year, the city decided to hold its Pork in the Park barbecue competition at the same time the horseshoe pitchers were in town.

"We've gotten where we have enough staff to be able to handle two different events at two different locations on the same weekend," Sawyer said, adding that the pitchers enjoy the camaraderie and having something else to do during their weekend competitions.

This year, about 60 pitchers from a dozen states made the trek to Newberry, bringing family and friends and offering local residents an interesting weekend of spectating.

"Horseshoes is not necessarily the easiest sport to watch from a spectator standpoint," Sawyer said. "But it really is something to see."

One year, he said, a competitor made 30 out of 30 ringers — a perfect game.

Where are the pickles?
One of the more interesting current trends in recreation is a game called pickleball. The origins of the funny name for the game, which is a combination of tennis, badminton and table tennis, are a bit murky. The USA Pickleball Association believes the truth probably lies in one or both stories told by the founders — three families on Bainbridge Island, Wash., who in 1965 were trying to help their kids find something to do with whatever equipment they could cobble together.

One story has it that the game's collection of contributing sports resembled the mishmash of what crew teams call the "pickle boat" — the crew made up of leftovers from all the other boats. The other says the name came from the pup of one of the founding families — a Cocker Spaniel named "Pickles."

Either way, the USA Pickleball Association indicates it is one of the fastest-growing sports around, particularly among aging tennis players who find themselves unable to cover the larger court because of injuries or lack of mobility.

"It's less demanding on your body," said Paola Maoli, director of Camden's tennis center and downtown Pickleball Plaza. "The ball is lighter, the paddle is smaller. People play every day."

City of Camden pickleball courts
The 12 courts of Camden's Pickleball Plaza are converted tennis courts. Photo: City of Camden.

Camden's Pickleball Plaza was created as the new tennis center was built and existing tennis courts were converted to pickleball courts. The city now offers 16 tennis courts and a dozen pickleball courts.

"The population in Camden made it happen," said Maoli, adding that Camden doesn't officially sponsor a pickleball league, but does offer players rental equipment. "Just about every morning, I have four or five pickleball courts playing."

Down the road in Aiken, "the sport with a funny name" is a little better established, said Jessica Campbell, the city's parks director.

Again, it was residents who pushed for the addition of the sport.

"We had some new members in the community who moved to Aiken and were ambassadors on a national level for the USA Pickleball Association," Campbell said. "They came and asked us how they could get pickleball going, and it took some education on their end to teach us about the sport. We hosted a free clinic on a Saturday in 2010 and had an amazing turnout. We haven't slowed down since."

Aiken now has eight outdoor and nine indoor courts dedicated to pickleball.

"What we're seeing as the benefit is a lot of tennis players who have aged out of tennis, maybe they're not as quick on the court or can't run the distance or have some joint issues, they are able to pick up the sport of pickleball fairly easy," Campbell said. "It seems to be an easier activity for someone who doesn't have as much mobility. I think that's why is popular with the senior community."

Playing nine or 18 baskets
In terms of carving out play space, the sport of disc golf is one of the easier additions cities and towns can make.

The most recent entrant into the field is the Town of Williston, which cut the ribbon on its course in April 2019.

The course was installed in an existing park and paid for with funds from a 1% countywide tax approved by voters and with grants from a nonprofit organization that paid for the baskets — or targets — that golfers aim for with their flying discs, similar to Frisbees.

For Williston, like other cities and towns, the key to the course's success is community involvement.

"We have a man in town who volunteered his services when he heard we were building a disc golf course," Town Administrator Kenneth Cook said. "He laid it out for us with some friends of his who play disc golf."

The park where the course is located — the aptly named Town Park — also has tennis courts, a baseball field, picnic shelter, pond and playground equipment.

"The course is challenging enough for the more advanced players and enjoyable for those who are just beginning," Cook said.