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Gamma Pickleball Classic comes to Pittsburgh

| Thursday, June 22, 2017, 4:24 p.m.
The Gamma Pickleball Classic tournament, a fundraiser for the Parkinson Foundation Western Pennsylvania that is in its second year. The event is drawing more than 400 pickleball players, both pros and amateurs, to Pittsburgh June 23 to 25.
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The Gamma Pickleball Classic tournament, a fundraiser for the Parkinson Foundation Western Pennsylvania that is in its second year. The event is drawing more than 400 pickleball players, both pros and amateurs, to Pittsburgh June 23 to 25.

Lou Sherfinski may be 70, but that doesn't stop him from playing and competing in the trendy sport of pickleball.

Sherfinski — an ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association ­— co-directs the Gamma Pickleball Classic tournament, a fundraiser for the Parkinson Foundation Western Pennsylvania that is in its second year. The event is drawing more than 400 pickleball players, both pros and amateurs, to Pittsburgh June 23 to 25.

This sport with a quirky name – inspired by the name of the inventing family's dog – originated about 50 years ago on America's West Coast and has been exploding in popularity the past five years, says Sherfinski.

According to the USA Pickleball Association's website, it is a paddle sport created for all ages and skill levels, combining many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Played by doubles or singles, pickleball is both an indoor or outdoor sport, using a badminton-sized court and a slightly modified tennis net.

Members of the public can come watch the tournament for free.

The gentle pickleball appeals to Sherfinski and other players, many of them senior citizens, in many ways.

“First of all, we like the exercise,” says Sherfinski, of McMurray, Washington County. “It's exercise that's aerobic, but it's not exhausting to the point that tennis might be. The court is a lot smaller, and the ball travels a lot more slowly. … There's a lot of moving and running and exercise, but you never have to run too far.”

Sherfinski also loves the social aspect of the game and the camaraderie.

“You spend a lot of time close to your opponents,” he says. “There's a lot of give and take over the net … and friendly banter back and forth.”

Michael Wertz, owner and founder of the Pittsburgh ad agency Apple Box Studios, says pickleball takes a little more brains and a little less brawn. He started the tournament last year to honor his father, who had Parkinson's disease.

“It's predominantly a game played by seniors,” he says. “It's not as strenuous as tennis, and there is a lot of strategy involved. Pickleball is a sport where a more strategic … player can beat a bigger, younger player.”

Still, the tournament – which drew 214 participants in its first year – divides players into several age and skill categories. Top players compete for cash prizes, while others play for honor and maybe a trophy or medal, Sherfinski says. Organizers are excited by how much the event has grown in just one year: The number of players and number of courts nearly has doubled. About half of the 400-plus players live in the southwestern Pennsylvania region, and the others come from 13 other states as far away as Florida and California, Wertz says.

The players range from teenagers to those in their 70s and older. Competitors even include five to 10 people who have Parkinson's disease, a disorder of the central nervous system that impairs movement and causes tremors and stiffness. Wertz ­— board president of the local Parkinson Foundation, which receives all proceeds from the tournament and got more than $10,000 last year — says pickleball perfectly fits the mission of his organization.

“We already know that exercise is a key ingredient to delaying the disease and the onset of Parkinson's disease,” Wertz says. “What we're learning is that exercise early in the diagnosis is critical to delaying the disease.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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