Watching a documentary about the Iron Cowboy gave Dean Matt a crazy idea that’s going to bring the Florida man to the Cowboy State on May 13 to play a pickleball game.
It’s one of 48 games he plans to play in 48 days through the lower 48 states, trying to set what will be a world record. The effort was to have been an official Guinness World Record attempt, but his partner had to drop out at the last minute.
“What sparked this is I saw a documentary about a guy who lives in Salt Lake City named James Lawrence,” Matt told Cowboy State Daily. “He went around eight years ago and did 50 full Ironman triathlons in 50 states in 50 days, which is crazy.
“So, I’ve been flying since high school and I thought I could do that, but me and my wife would go golfing instead.”
Before he could make that idea a reality, he had hip surgery. He and his wife did move to a golfing community in Florida after that.
But pickleball happened instead.
“We hardly play golf because of this thing called pickleball,” Matt said.
Out on the pickleball courts, Matt met a kindred spirit in Shannon Yaeger, who was also a pilot. When Matt told him of his idea to do 48 pickleball games in 48 states in 48 days, Yaeger was in.
But Do They Even Play Pickleball In Wyoming?
Before Matt could start to plan this record attempt in earnest, he had to find out whether pickleball was available in every state.
He started with states like North Dakota and Wyoming.
“I figured if they play way up there, they’re gonna play everywhere, and that’s been the case,” Matt said. “Everyone’s playing everywhere.”
Satisfied that what he wanted to do would be possible, he and his partner next laid out a doable flight plan. It’s 8,122 nautical miles and should take just 80.5 flight hours. The rest of the time will be for weather delays, eating, sleeping, ground travel, and playing the pickleball match itself.
They chose Casper in Wyoming because it’s along the planned route and Matt had been there once before.
“My wife and I flew our little plane out from Chicago to Rapid City, South Dakota, to see Mount Rushmore, and then we continued on to Casper,” he said. “So, I’ve been out there before, and I was a l little bit familiar with it. We remember eating downtown at a little restaurant there.”
A Casper Welcoming
Casper officials were also quite welcoming, Matt said, and were on board right away.
“Folks everywhere across the country are very welcoming,” he said. “They want to be part of this, you know, it’s just, it’s just a nice story to do.
“We’re not making any money off it, and we’re not going to be raising any money off it. But pickleball is pretty exciting across the United States, and the pickleball community is very welcoming and social. Everyone’s doing what they can to kind of help us get around the country, including the guy whose driving me right now.”
Matt was speaking to Cowboy State Daily from a car in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on his way to what will be his second pickleball match of the trip.
“We will be playing, rumor has it, T-Bob Hebert, a talk show host who used to play for the LSU Tigers,” Matt said. “He’s on ESPN, you know, and he’s one of those radio sports guys. His dad Bobby was a professional quarterback for the Saints and many other teams.”
In Casper, meanwhile, he’ll be playing VisitCasper’s CEO/President Tyler Daugherty and VisitCasper’s Business Management Development Manager Luke Gilliam at the 307 Tennis Club.
“You know what’s great about it is that you’ve got this gentleman at a grassroots level who was like, ‘Hey, I want to do this game because it’s fun and I got my pilot’s license and I’ve got the time to do it,’” Daugherty told Cowboy State Daily. “But you know, pickleball has taken off, and I want to be part of that growth and he wants to promote it.
“You need unique stuff like this in my opinion to help sports nationwide, and this is going to catch on.”
Eric Nokes, one of the instructors at 307 Tennis Club, told Cowboy State Daily he plans to have activities an hour before and an hour after the match, which is set for 11 a.m. May 13.
This will be the first year 307 Tennis Club has had a membership for pickleball, Nokes added, and it already has 27 of them.
That’s not as many people as they have for tennis, but Nokes said he knows this is a rapidly growing segment. 307 Tennis Club now has a couple of pickleball instructors on staff, to help meet that demand.
Pickleball’s Meteoric Rise
The game of pickleball looks a little bit like tennis, but with a pingpong paddle and a whiffle ball on a much smaller court.
A single tennis court can easily fit three pickleball courts with four players each, making them much more economic than tennis courts.
The rules are fairly simple. The ball must bounce before it is hit after the serve and the return of serve. After that, pretty much anything goes — as long as it’s within the court lines and goes over the net.
The game was created in 1965 in Bainbridge Island, Washington, by three fathers who just wanted to keep their bored children busy.
The name of the sport is popularly attributed to a puppy they owned who liked to steal the ball, but the Prichard family, who was involved in creating the game, have been reported in some stories saying that this is backward. They didn’t have the dog when the game was created. The dog was actually named Pickles after the game.
According to the Prichards’ account at pickleballportal.com, the name was actually related to “pickle boats,” referring to a situation where a rowing team has several mismatched crew members, some of whom are much stronger than the rest.
That description is apt in the pickleball world, where people of all skills and fitness levels show up at an agreed-upon time to play games randomly with each other, without regard for how good their teammates or opponents are. Scores are kept, but the real win is the exercise, socializing and fun that goes with all of that.
A Growth Sport
This aspect of the game is undoubtedly part of what has contributed to the sport’s sudden rise in popularity. Pickleball grew 158.6% to 8.9 million players across the nation in a three-year span, according to the 2023 Sports & Fitness Industry Association report. In 2022, the report also says the number of players more than doubled, growing 85.7%.
Matt, however, believes there are many more players than that.
A study from the Association of Pickleball Professionals puts the number of players at more like 36 million people over age 18 who have played at least once in 2022.
The popularity has led to all sorts of pickleball products, from high-end to low-end. Paddles, clothing, hats — there’s even a pickleball coffee now.
Matt and his wife like the game because it’s easy to play and highly social.
“It’s a little bit of exercise for everybody,” Matt said. “You know, it’s a lot of fun, it’s not as strenuous as tennis and you usually play doubles. It’s very social, too. Everybody talks to everybody.”
But no one has to bring their own partner to play a game. Just show up at the pickleball court at the appointed time. Everyone takes turns playing against each other, whether they knew each other before or not. That makes it a great way to make new friends.
“Anyone can play it, and anyone can beat anybody,” Matt added. “I mean, at the last stop back in Sarasota, I’m going to be playing with a 93-year-old man who has beaten me before. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, we’re going to be playing with a 97-year-old woman. I don’t think she’s going to beat me. I hope not …”
Contact Renée Jean at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com