So there we were.
Standing in the proverbial arena like gladiators of old. The soft click of the reinforced plexiglass door behind us served as a solid reminder that our fates were sealed and we would only emerge from our confinement after glorious victory or ignominious defeat.
Barely out of high school, we quickly sized up our foes: Grown men in their mid-thirties with a look of experience, grit, and determination, just exuding confidence.
Measuring us with a critical eye of their own, their unspoken assessment clearly assured them this match would be over quickly and they could move on to focus on the field’s more challenging competitors. That was a mistake.
The formality of handshakes past, we assumed our positions, and my partner lined up and drilled one of his signature 130 mile-per-hour “roll-out” serves, offering no opportunity for our opponents to return the ball.
I looked back at the stunned faces of our now more respectful opponents, smiled and said, “I love racquetball.”
Watching the Olympics this week has brought back a flood of memories from the peak of my own athletic achievement. For a period in my life, racquetball was my one true love, but no one loved it more than my best bud and doubles partner, Nathan Brown.
We played for years in high school and carried our love for the game on to college where we met between classes to play almost daily while at the University of Tennessee. When we learned that the state racquetball championships would be held in Knoxville in 1989, there was no question as to whether or not we would sign up. It was just a matter of completing the paperwork.
So, again, there we were. Taking a one-point lead in the match that could advance a couple of wet-behind-the-ears 19-year-olds to the state championship quarterfinals. We led by 3 points before our opponents received a returnable ball and took over service.
I have to pause here. Because it is almost a certainty that Nathan will read this, a few disclosures are in order lest he feel compelled to expose my embellishments. The man is honest to a fault, and probably has not, unlike me, bragged to his children for years about being half of a highly-ranked racquetball doubles team in the Great State of Tennessee during college.
While we were playing to reach the quarterfinals, it was in Division C, an amateur division for teams with minimal tournament experience. And although we did reach the quarterfinals, Division C only had 16 teams, so we had to win only one match to get there. Given our position and the other divisions, we were probably around the 40th best team in the field. On top of that, Nathan was so much better than me that I was probably the 200th best player there out of maybe 202 players. Still, to track my athletic prowess past grasscutter football, this was indeed the peak.
See how the truth muddles the picture a columnist tries to paint for the reader? Takes it straight from Picasso-esque brilliance to a 4-year-old’s first effort at paint-by-numbers.
Besides, we were actually really good – especially for our age.
As uncoached students of the game, we read books about proper technique – utilizing the snap of the wrist and timing it with the swing of the arm so as to have the racket face moving at an extremely high velocity at the point of impact with the ball. We understood that every shot should couple a split-second reaction with a calculated effort to force our opponents out of position, allowing us to take or maintain control of center court where the majority of balls traveled. We also knew all too well that the optimal shot in racquetball is one where the ball strikes so low on the wall that the impact with the wall and floor occurs nearly simultaneously, the ball rolling away so that a return is impossible.
Nothing short of academic experts on the game, we melded the subpar equipment and ramen-nourished bodies of poor college kids into an impressive skillset, especially as the tournament’s youngest team.
After a beautifully timed diving backhand resulted in another roll-out by yours truly, our victory was secured as Nathan played target practice, shellacking them with a screaming serve while I nursed the wounds of executing an athletic feat exceeding my actual ability which probably had more resembled a bloated whale carcass on the beach than the move of athletic prowess I envisioned.
After our match, the presiding official stopped and congratulated us, offering advice and encouragement.
Sadly, the confidence of our next opposing team was not so unfounded, based on the 15:7 clinic they put on for us. Again, though, a different official stopped us and this time hinted that the opposing team may have intentionally selected a division they were overqualified for in an effort to secure an easy championship win. From that official, I learned both what sandbagging meant and also just how cool and down-to-earth the racquetball community could be.
Watching a few more games after our quest ended, we realized that as good as we felt our skills were, Knoxville showed off some REALLY skilled players that day. We left with a couple of T-shirts, some bragging rights and, for me, a few bruises. Nathan almost worked up a sweat.
Like I tell my kids, I am practically an Olympian. Autographs available on request.
© Michael L. Collins
*This column appeared in the February 21, 2018 edition of The Mountain Press.