For decades, The Villages, Florida has been known to outsiders as the “Golf Capital of the World”– and for good reason. It’s always been a way of life in this community of active adults, with more than 50 different courses and over 700 holes to play. But there’s another sport in town that reigns just as supreme, if not more, – pickleball.
Pickleball has been a mainstay in The Villages since 1990 , which now boasts more than 240 courts and counting, earning the nickname “The Mecca of Pickleball.”
The Villages may have more pickleball courts than any community in the world. They’re filled with players of all ability levels from pure beginners to world champions like 85-year-old Jean Kiker. Speaking to Growing Bolder at the 2022 Villages Senior Games, Kiker recalled that it only took one day for her to become a pickleball addict.
“I was a tennis player when I came down here. I’d never heard of pickleball or seen it or anything, and I heard some funny noises and went over to see what it was, and it was people playing pickleball,” Kiker said. “Someone said to me, ‘Oh, you want to play?’ And I go, ‘Sure.’ So they gave me a paddle. That was it. I was there before the sun came up the next day. So I just got addicted really quickly. I’ve loved it ever since.”
Kiker is not alone in her passion for the sport. Pickleball participation has grown at an average rate of more than 158% over the last 3 years, making it the fastest growing sport in America. There are now more than 8 million players across the country. And while it’s attracted world famous athletes like Tom Brady, Lebron James and Kevin Durant– Kiker says the beauty of Pickleball is that you don’t need to be a superstar to pick up a paddle.
“Anybody, any age, any level can play. Anywhere you go, you’ll find pickleball courts. It’s a game for everybody,” Kiker told Growing Bolder. “We were just up with the family and we had three generations on the court playing. And as you get better, the competition gets more fierce and you can travel, and compete in tournaments. I’ve been all over the United States playing in tournaments, and you meet amazing people.”
At her most recent tournament, the 2022 National Senior Games, Kiker took home 4 gold medals and spread the gospel of an active lifestyle.
“I think most people know that in the Villages, we live life to the fullest. There’s a sport for everybody. Every age, every level of competitiveness. You name it, we’ve got it. And everybody takes part. It’s just like one of those things, you get up a group and you play whatever you like. If you don’t know how to play, you learn.
I’ve had a new hip. You can play even though you’ve had injuries. I’ve seen people come on the court 40 pounds overweight the next year they come back and they just learned how to play. Here they are fit as a fiddle and then they go, ‘Oh, it’s all because of pickleball.'”
She’s known on the court as “Mean Jean” partly due to her competitive nature, but also as an ironic nod to her infectious smile and warm personality. At 85, Jean Kiker is healthy, happy, and optimistic about the future.
“You have to take care of your health,” Kiker said. “You’re going to have a miserable old age if you don’t keep active and in pretty reasonable shape and keep doing the things that you like to do. And you’ve got to have a good attitude and just get up every day and enjoy every day.
I would not be playing tennis at my age. I know that. I look at that big court and I think, “Oh, how did I ever do it?” But pickleball makes it available for everybody because it’s well within your reach in your 90’s. That’s really the secret. Just never give up. Just keep going.”