Many of us, myself included, have only discovered pickleball in the last couple of years. Despite the sport being around for decades (the sport was invented in Bainbridge Island, Washington in 1965), I didn’t know about the sport until a coworker introduced it to me at the Chicken N Pickle in Kansas City a couple of years ago. I was immediately hooked and began looking for places to play and people to play with in Wichita.
Did you know that people in Wichita have been playing pickleball since the late 90s? Neither did I until I had the good fortune of meeting some of Wichita’s pickleball pioneers. Here are stories shared by three veteran pickleball players about the early beginnings of pickleball in our community.
At Senior Services, Inc. of Wichita, we started playing around 1997, or at least the latter 1990s. Sylvia Herheim was the Downtown Senior Center director at that time.
Joyce Ott purchased the net, wiffle balls, and paddles so we could get our start. We ended up calling her “Coach.” She had several friends who played with us — one of whom was a retired PE Coach, Jean, and LaVerne who was a former nun. Joyce’s twin sister Jodie would come up from AR and play with us also.
Mike Gadbury, Coeta Laxson, and I worked for Senior Services and would play with the other players after hours in the Downtown Senior Center gym. It started getting more popular and we extended the play to the two other senior centers that were housed in City rec centers, Linwood and Orchard Park.
We had some older gentlemen who played and Roger Roller. One of the men had a 7-foot wingspan and could cover the court quite well. I always tried to get him for my partner! We had so much fun and were competitive. We fought for the ball, so much so, one of the players went for the ball and imprinted his bottom on the sheetrock, that later had to be redone. Yes, we were serious back then — serious fun that is.
I started playing pickleball in May of 2011. My first experience was at the Orchard Park Senior Center where I went to find out what pickleball was all about. Gordon Boody put a paddle in my lap and said to “get out there” and play. I enjoyed it so much, and he invited me to the Downtown Senior Center the next morning to “play with the big boys.”
At that time, the only places to play pickleball in Wichita were indoors at three senior centers: Downtown, Orchard Park and Linwood. Both Linwood and Orchard were meant for recreational players while Downtown was where the competitive players played.
In spite of orders from my cardiologist not to do anything physical except walking, I went downtown and played with the big boys: Roger Roller, A.J. Quinton, Al Gerstenkorn, Mary Jane Gerstenkorn, Jim Shock, Dan Rausch, Dale Rausch, Don Roe, Tim Paul, and Gordon Boody. After playing with them for six months, I went back to my cardiologist and found that I had lost 25 pounds and all my blood work numbers looked good. My cardiologist was amazed and asked what I had been doing. After I explained pickleball to him and how often I played, he said to keep it up. Of course, I then told my wife, “Doctors orders — I’ve got to keep playing pickleball.” Roger Roller, my seventh grade band instructor, played until he was 93 years old.
In June of 2011, four of us from the Downtown Senior Center played in a tournament in Salina, which was my first tournament experience. Later that year, in September, Al and Mary Jane Gerstenkorn and I played in the Kansas Senior Olympics in Topeka. That was my first experience playing pickleball outdoors. With only four months of playing experience, I felt lucky to be able to take second place in the men’s 65-69 singles bracket. Al took first in the bracket, and then he and Mary Jane took first in 65-69 mixed doubles.
In the summer of 2012, I organized a small tournament for the competitive players at the Downtown Senior Center to enjoy. Everyone had great fun and wanted to do it again during the winter. That led to the Downtown Center putting on three small tournaments in 2013. Then, Senior Services, Inc. of Wichita inaugurated an annual tournament as an organization fundraiser to be known as the Heartland Golden Games, which debuted on April 26, 2014. That first tournament drew 55 registered players from ten different cities in Kansas. The Heartland games were held each year thereafter until the pandemic of 2020. By the 2019 games, the tournament had grown to 91 players from fourteen cities and towns across Kansas, as well as five cities in Oklahoma.
In the meantime, in September of 2012, I again participated in the Kansas Senior Olympics in Topeka at the outdoor Hughes Courts. It dawned on me during this tournament that with the sun and wind added to the environment, it was definitely a different experience from playing indoors in Wichita. It seemed to me to be only fair that if Wichita was going to compete on a level playing field at the state level, we needed to have a place to play pickleball outdoors in our home city.
While at the Senior Olympics, I experienced a USA Pickleball ambassador who, in my opinion, was acting improperly as an ambassador for the sport of pickleball. I researched the ambassador program and learned Wichita and the state of Kansas did not have a designated USA Pickleball ambassador. At that time, it seemed to me that, if I became an ambassador for USA Pickleball in our area, my comments might carry more weight with the city of Wichita as I planned to start to get more places to play in our community. In early October 2012, I was named as the first ambassador for the USA Pickleball in Wichita.
Thereafter, I met with the Wichita Parks and Recreation Director, Doug Kupper, to promote his department’s provision of outdoor pickleball courts in Wichita. I explained our disadvantage in playing outdoor tournaments involving players from areas that provide outdoor facilities. I used Hughes Courts in Topeka as the prime example of good outdoor pickleball courts in the state and used Seneca Park as the prime example of Wichita tennis courts that were hardly ever used and could be converted to pickleball courts. Doug brought several other staff members into the discussion including, Karen Holmes, David McGuire, and their architect, Larry Hoetmer. Doug admitted that the Seneca courts were in terrible shape and had been on the list for demolition for six years. We had an ally in Karen Holmes as she was familiar with pickleball and had played in Washington before coming to Kansas. After much debate, it was decided that the City would paint pickleball court lines on the tennis courts at Aley Park to appease our need in the short term. Aley courts were the newest tennis courts in the City at that time and would serve as a good test to see how pickleball courts would be utilized in Wichita Parks. The maintenance folks proceeded to paint six pickleball courts in due course which were then available to use to prepare for the 2013 Kansas Senior Olympics.
During this time, more and more players were taking up the sport of pickleball in Wichita. Additional locations were opening up to pickleball play, including rec centers and local churches in areas all around Wichita. To assist in the skill development of new as well as seasoned players, Bob Jackson, a retired coach and pickleball enthusiast as well as avid Shocker supporter, and I organized skill clinics at Downtown Senior Center. Bob later developed such a program through the Wichita Parks and Recreation Department which he conducted at local rec centers. To augment this development, I arranged for DeAnne Davison, a 5.0 player currently living in Surprise, AZ who was originally from Kansas, to take time out from visiting her parents in Wichita, to conduct several pickleball skills development clinics for our local players. These were conducted on the Aley Park pickleball courts on May 27 and 28, 2014.
Ongoing was the effort to convince the Wichita Parks and Rec Department to install permanent outdoor pickleball courts in Wichita. Doug Kupper’s initial response regarding the Seneca Park tennis courts was to agree that the City would install the courts if our pickleball group would pay for it. The estimated cost at the time was $120,000. The City would then lease the courts to our group for $1 per year. In May of 2013, our group met with the Wichita Park Foundation to urge them to support this innovative change to Wichita parks. Apparently the increasing interest in pickleball across the city became known to Doug Kupper who announced at the meeting that the city would foot the bill for half of the installation costs. Even at that, the remaining costs were too high for our small group to achieve.
As a possible aid to our effort, Doug Kupper took a position in Oklahoma City in May of 2014. Marty Miller, Director of Botanica was named Interim Director of the Wichita Parks and Rec Department. DeAnn Most, Director of Programs for Senior Services, and I met with Marty Miller, David McGuire and Larry Hoetmer on August 13, 2014 to renew our pitch for permanent outdoor pickleball courts in our city. We were pleasantly surprised by Marty’s warm response to our pitch and apparent eagerness to make it happen. He instructed the architect to gather information on logistics and the cost to convert the tennis courts at Seneca Park for pickleball. However, two months later, the newly named permanent Director, Troy Houtman, took over from Marty and plans stalled.
As time went by, more and more people were attracted to the sport. More people also became involved with the effort to provide permanent courts in our parks, Becky Middleton chief among them. Meetings were set up with Troy Houtman to educate him on the beauty of pickleball and the need for more places to play in Wichita. As my health declined, Becky took the lead and the results are the beautiful courts we all enjoy today at Edgemoor Park, Riverside Tennis Center and Seneca Park. But there is more to be done. My goal is to see permanent outdoor courts at Sedgwick County Park in the near future, as well as replacing other underutilized and decrepit tennis courts all across Wichita.
Dream big, work hard and stay humble. The annoying thing about being humble is that you can’t brag about it. But, I am going to give credit where credit’s due – to all those who came before us to lay the groundwork of where we are today. Thank you to Cherise Langenberg, Hank Blase and Bob Jackson for blazing the trail that has made many things possible. Not one person does it all – it is a synergy of creative cooperation. It is teamwork, open-mindedness, and the adventure of finding new solutions to old problems. With that, I will share my observations of the past few years.
In October 2014, I was no longer able to play tennis after thirty years and had no interest in golf anymore either. It was time for a new sport and I remembered someone mentioning pickleball a few years earlier. I googled “pickleball in Wichita” and nothing came up. Shortly after, a friend said she was meeting someone for lunch after they were done playing pickleball at Andover. BINGO!!! Of course, I was all over that. Where do they play? When do they play? Then I heard about Nahola and decided to go out there and watch in my flip flops. At the time, they only had one court in the multipurpose room. The ladies encouraged me to play, but I had the wrong shoes on – but it sure did look like something I wanted to do. The next week, I went out to Andover and got in that long line and waited my turn. It was instant love – I could do this.
After a few weeks of playing at Andover, I started thinking of how I could grow public pickleball in Wichita. I had a discussion with my friend Leo Estopare, who was my mentor in tennis. He lives close to Edgemoor Park and told me that the gym is never used in the afternoon and would be perfect for pickleball. We then spoke with Alan Taber, the director at Edgemoor and he was all for it. We organized a meeting with Hank Blase, Bob Jackson, and Karen Holmes with the city. Indoor play was approved immediately, and Bob Jackson and I taped our first courts together — one of many. The gym went from being never used to being used virtually everyday. Alan Taber was the greatest city advocate for pickleball there ever was – we miss him since he retired last year.
So, I am playing along for a few months and then I get the idea to do a Valentine’s Day tournament at Edgemoor in February 2015. I got eight teams to compete that day and we had fun, but something fortuitous occurred that I had not expected. While I was cleaning the floors in preparation for the tournament, I had to keep asking a certain foursome to move so I could clean the courts. That foursome was Jack Oxler, Matt Wright, Chris Heck, and Erik Rasmussen. They were addicted and I could hardly get them to quit so we could start the tournament. This was my introduction to these guys and it grew from there. Jack Oxler was very interested in starting a pickleball career, so we worked with Alan Taber to establish Jack as a subcontractor for the city. Jack came to pickleball at a time when it was ready to explode. He brought a whole new demographic to the game, and conducted clinics, lessons, and tournaments for the next year and a half. I had the privilege of working with him on a lot of this and learned everything I could soak up.
Right after the Valentine’s Day tournament, I made the decision to convert two of the outdoor tennis courts at Edgemoor to six pickleball courts. I had never done anything like this but, for some reason, I had no fear and the firm belief that it could happen. The first order of business was to get bids together and present a grant application to the Lattner Family Foundation. The Lattner Family fully funded the project and by the middle of summer, we had six dedicated pickleball courts with windscreens. This conversion provided the first dedicated outdoor pickleball courts in Wichita and it was a huge success — giving players more opportunity to practice outdoors and allowing Jack Oxler to optimize his opportunities with the player base.
In 2018, my friend Leo Estopare kept telling me that the junior courts at Riverside should also be converted. They were never used and it was space that could be converted to pickleball. Again, with the help of Alan Taber, Sara Rasmussen, and Reggie Davidson, I was given permission. I went back to the Lattner Family Foundation one more time for funding and they generously and graciously granted it in full – I am forever indebted to the Lattner Family. With the funding in place, I proceeded with the plan to convert the Riverside junior courts to three dedicated pickleball courts. I believe these courts were the impetus for the courts that followed.
Shortly after the proven success of Edgemoor and Riverside outdoor dedicated pickleball courts, I received a call that my help was needed to work with the city architects and engineers to design and implement the court conversion at Seneca Park. It was a complete scrape and new construction. I could hardly wait to hang up the phone and call Hank Blase with the good news. This is how it happens – somebody starts the ball rolling, then someone else helps roll it along and then suddenly it gets done. Thank you, Hank Blase, for all your preliminary work.
Right before the Riverside project was completed, we lost Jack Oxler to Chicken N Pickle in Kansas City. This came as a huge loss to me and our pickleball community. We no longer had anyone that could lead us in the way that Jack did. His contribution to the growth of pickleball in Wichita is unparalleled. Jack’s influence on Wichita pickleball didn’t end with his departure for KC – he strongly lobbied for Wichita to have the second Chicken N Pickle. Thank you, Jack Oxler – we still claim you as our own – forever!
As for the future, Troy Houtman has proven to be a strong leader for pickleball. He listens to the needs of our community and does everything he can to make it happen. Troy suggested we form a liaison committee – it is called the Leadership Team. Gregg Smith is the leader of this group and is currently working to get lights at Edgemoor Park. Gregg holds the annual Bob Jackson Friendship Tournament to raise funds for the lights. Gregg will also be instrumental in the development of South Lakes Park and the 18 courts that are proposed there. Gregg is very much a part of the synergy that is taking place in the Wichita pickleball world – he works hard for the pickleball community and represents Wichita as a fine ambassador.
Another exciting prospect happening in our community – Dave New, along with Chris Heck and a few others, organized an in-service day for over 200 Physical Education teachers, grades K-12. The objective was to introduce pickleball to the teachers so it can be taught throughout Wichita schools. The process of getting equipment for gym classes is now underway through grants. We expect and welcome a surge in pickleball youth.
One last thing I am involved in is to evaluate all of the two-court tennis facilities throughout our city to see which ones are candidates to be converted to a different configuration – leaving one tennis court and converting the other tennis court into two pickleball courts. This would place more pickleball courts within the neighborhoods. Not every tennis complex is a candidate, based on proximity to housing.
Pickleball has spread like wildfire. To name a few venues: Boston, Chicken N Pickle, Downtown Senior Center, East YMCA, Edgemoor Rec (inside and outside), Evergreen Rec, Family Life Center (Immanuel Baptist Church), Hoops, Linwood, McAdams Rec, Nahola, Northwest YMCA, Orchard, Riverside Tennis Center (inside and outside), Seneca Park, West YMCA, Andover Rec, Andover YMCA, Bel Aire Rec, Derby Rec, El Dorado Rec, Sam Bintner Tennis Courts, Maize Rec, Mulvane Rec, and Valley Center. I am sure I have forgotten to name a few. It is also too numerous to mention all of the players that have made this growth happen. A shout out to all of you!
The future is bright for pickleball and I still see it growing by leaps and bounds. We have such a strong presence of players here at every level. We are so proud of our national champions and the way they represent our city. We have the greatest ambassadors that take care of us and provide a unified foundation. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Wichita. The journey is the reward.
Now that you’ve read stories from three pickleball pioneers who have paved the way for the rest of us, we would love to hear your story. Tell us how you got your start in the comments below.