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Thwap, thwap, thwap was the sound that echoed through the Winona Tennis Center this week as players lobbed neon green balls over the net.

But they weren’t using racquets: They were using paddles, and they weren’t hitting tennis balls, but rather Wiffle Balls.

The event was part of a clinic in which dozens of Winonans came out to play pickleball — one of the fastest growing sports in America — with two of the top players in the region.

Nationally ranked pickleball players Dave Weinbach and KaSandra Gehrke of Madison, Wis., helped local players improve their games during one of two clinics put on Friday and Saturday by the Greater La Crosse Pickleball Association and Winona Area Tennis Association.

Weinbach, a 48-year-old financial adviser from Madison, is well known in pickleball circles. He has won more than 80 gold medals and competed in the U.S. Open Championship six times and the United States of America Pickleball Association championship five times during his 10-year career.

Gehrke, a 29-year-old physical-education teacher from Madison, is a relative newcomer to competitive pickleball, but she’s already making waves. In April she competed in her first U.S. Pickleball Open.

During the clinics, Gehrke and Weinbach often jumped in mid-match to correct mistakes, demonstrate new techniques or serve up tips and tricks.

Pickleball combines elements of tennis, badminton and table tennis, using a ball similar to a Wiffle Ball and a racquet that resembles a ping-pong paddle.

Gehrke said while pickleball has been around for 50 years, it has only been in the last 10 years that it has exploded in popularity.

According to USAPA Pickleball Ambassador Jan Lucas, more courts are erected each year. Lucas is already working to bring six dedicated pickleball courts to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus sometime next year and another eight elsewhere in the city.

“We’re looking to get even more,” she said.

Weinbach believes the reason for this surge in popularity is the low starting threshold.

“All you need is a paddle and a ball,” he said. “One of the beauties of pickleball is anyone can play. I’ve played with 4-year-olds, and I’ve played with 100-year-olds.”

A former competitive tennis and table tennis player, Weinbach was introduced to the sport while helping his parents move from Milwaukee to Surprise, Ariz., where he happened upon a handful of former pickleball champions who taught him to play.

“I got addicted very quickly. It’s a great form of exercise, and it’s a wonderful way to meet new people,” Weinbach said.

After four years, he began to compete in tournaments, quickly ascending the ranks.

Gehrke introduced pickleball to her students about three years ago, and it quickly became her passion as she entered tournament after tournament.

“I love how social it is,” she said. “I travel all over the county now for this game called pickleball.”

Weinbach said he hopes more schools will follow in Gehrke’s and others’ footsteps and make pickleball a part of the curriculum.

Lucas said she hopes Weinbach and Gehrke will return for another clinic next year to introduce more people to the sport.

Lucas recommends that people interested in trying pickleball visit greaterlaxareapickleball.jimbo.com, where players can find information on equipment, where to play and upcoming events, workshops and tournaments.

“I got addicted very quickly. It’s a great form of exercise, and it’s a wonderful way to meet new people.” Dave Weinbach, pickleball champion

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Tobias Mann covers crime and government in Winona County. He can be reached at 507-453-3522 or at tobias.mann@winonadailynews.com

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