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Lawrence pickleball players plan tournament to fund pediatric cancer research

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Some local pickleball players are using their passion for the sport to support St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. 

Pickleball Lawrence and Sarah is Our Superhero, a Lawrence group that raises money for St. Jude, are collaborating to host a competitive tournament on Oct. 1 that will also serve as a fundraiser for cancer research. 

“We are so excited about this tournament,” said Nikki Weigel, a board member for Pickleball Lawrence. “This will be Sarah is Our Superhero’s first annual pickleball tournament and they came to us for help with it and we were complimented by that, that they trusted us to help run their first ever pickleball tournament.” 

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The charity

Sarah is Our Superhero was created by a group of friends who were inspired to raise money for cancer research after Kristine Burrichter’s daughter Sarah was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 4. Sarah is now 18 and recently graduated from Free State High School. 

Since her diagnosis, Sarah has undergone brain surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and received speech therapy for aphasia, a complication from her cancer and surgery. All of Sarah’s treatment was guided and under the direction of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. 

“She has been a patient at St. Jude for more than 13 years,” Burrichter said. “It’s a very unique model for medical care and we’ve really been benefactors of all the skills and expertise from (St. Jude). I can say for sure, their mission is just to take care of those kids.” 

Since 2015, Kristine and her friends have run or walked to raise money for St. Jude, traveling to Tennessee for the St. Jude Memphis Marathon until 2020, when they participated virtually. In both 2020 and 2021, they raised more than $20,000. 

They’ve organized fundraisers like “Egg Your Yard,” where people pay them to scatter candy-filled Easter eggs onto yards bright and early Easter morning, and “Duck Plunge,” where people pay for rubber ducks to potentially win prizes. Now they are adding to their repertoire with a pickleball tournament they plan to host annually. 

“We decided it would be a nice opportunity — most of our husbands play pickleball … We thought, ‘Why don’t we just host an event and get some more people involved with our organization, and (get them to) understand our mission, and have a fun time playing a great sport that’s growing pretty quickly out here?’” Burrichter said.

What is pickleball? 

Pegged as the fastest growing sport in the country, pickleball is a mix of tennis, pingpong and badminton. It was invented by a couple of dads trying to entertain their children in the summer of 1965. 

Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell gathered what equipment they had — some pingpong paddles and a wiffle ball — and lowered the net on their badminton court, introducing their children to what would later become pickleball. The game’s popularity grew, and by 1984 the United States Amateur Pickleball Association emerged, along with an official rulebook.

For the past 15 or so years, the sport has grown in Lawrence under the leadership of Evan Jorn, who helped the pickleball community secure more courts at Lyons Park, and sets of lines on the Sports Pavilion tennis courts. A pickleball court is about one-third the size of a tennis court. 

Jorn, a former USA Pickleball ambassador, had urged others in the community to take over leadership. Among several people who answered the call is Steven Koprince, a board member who helped form Pickleball Lawrence.

Contributed Photo Pickleball Lawrence board members pose for a photo at Pickleball Lawrence’s Kick Off event on June 25, 2022 at Sports Pavilion Lawrence. Left to right are Steven Koprince, Nikki Weigel, Carol Kummer, Brian Johnson, board president, and Steve Berndsen, board vice president.

The group, which officially became a nonprofit in June, offers free pickleball instruction for beginners or people who consider themselves novices twice a week: at 9 a.m. on Wednesdays at Sports Pavilion Lawrence, and at 9 a.m. Saturdays outside at Lyons Park. No registration is required, but people are encouraged to bring their own paddles. 

“I think some people hear the name and it sounds kind of silly, but then they try it and have a blast,” Koprince said. 

Senior citizens can teach you to play pickleball, then consequently clobber you, Koprince said. 

“It’s fun and quick; you get great exercise without noticing that you’re exercising,” he said. 

Pickleball games usually play to 11 points, and may only last 10 to 15 minutes.

Weigel will tell you that one game will likely not be enough to satiate, however: pickleball is addictive, and she plays five to six times a week, often twice a day. 

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Beyond that, Weigel is on a mission to get more people to play the game.

“This sounds outrageous, but I feel like pickleball can literally change the world in some ways,” Weigel said. “The key right now … in the world is we need more things like this to unify us. And to get us together and socialize and have positive experiences. There’s probably never been a time I’ve walked on a pickleball court and not felt the joy from people playing it. It’s just an environment where everyone is in a good mood and laughing and having fun and still very competitive at the same time.” 

Paddles are $15 to $30 on Amazon, but chances are they’ll wear out quickly, Weigel said. 

“I would warn you that (pickleball) will probably become addictive and you’ll want to get a better paddle,” Weigel said. 

If you’ve never played, it’s not too late to learn in time to register for the tournament: “easy to learn, difficult to master,” the popular pickleball adage says. 

The tournament will take place from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1 at Lyons Park, 700 Lyon St. in North Lawrence. It will include men’s and women’s doubles, and mixed doubles. It’s $35 to play in each category.

There are plenty of sessions of free pickleball instruction before the tournament. Pickleball Lawerence members encourage people who have never played before to come learn — and if after some lessons, they still don’t feel comfortable playing, they can support the fundraiser by watching, donating, or buying a T-shirt. 

“This is a wonderful way to get health and fitness to the community, and it’s family-oriented,” Weigel said. “All these different ages are intermixed playing this game. You’ve got grandparents playing with their grandkids. … it’s such a positive thing and it brings so many people joy.” 

Those who want to participate can register for the tournament at this link. T-shirts are available via the same link, but orders are due this Friday, Sept. 9. 

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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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