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Hitting the Wall

Reprinted from SNS January 2019

Wheelchair racquetball sounds intimidating, but for these athletes it offers physical and mental rewards

Racquetball used to be a major part of Joe Hoffman’s life.

Throughout his teenage years, he’d played competitive able-bodied racquetball with his father, Drexel Wayne, and older brother, Drexel Adam, traveling throughout Kentucky and Tennessee to play in tournaments. 

But after sustaining a T7/8 spinal-cord injury (SCI) in a May 2013 highway car accident in Tennessee, Hoffman crossed that sport off his list. That is, until he discovered the sport exists for wheelchair users. 

After hearing about a Military Racquetball Federation (MRF) clinic being put on in his hometown of Bowling Green, Ky., Hoffman returned to the courts last February. In 11 months, the 25-year-old has picked up the sport rather quickly.

“The most important thing I’ve learned being in the chair is, like, the differences in how you hit the ball. If you watch racquetball enough, you see very similar techniques on things — in a forehand, the drive of the hips, the follow-through, being able to travel close to your body, explode through, roll your hand. And you see those and it’s like a muscle memory pattern,” Hoffman says. “But in wheelchair racquetball, you don’t really have it because you have no hips. So, you have to do different things and then it becomes even more different depending on how much abdominal function you have.”

The Basics

Racquetball operates with standard racquetball rules, and players use the usual ball and racquet. And like tennis, you can play either singles or doubles and compete indoors or outdoors. 

There are only two differences between indoor racquetball and outdoor racquetball. 

In outdoor racquetball, there is no back wall or ceiling. Outdoor players have only three walls (front and two side walls, with walls being brought in) to hit, while indoor players have five (front, two side walls, a back wall and ceiling). 

Also during an outdoor game, if the ball hits the line during a return, it’s considered a good ball. But if the ball hits the short line on the serve, it’s considered short and a bad serve. Every other line is considered good.

Retired U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steven Harper has played able-bodied racquetball for the last 18 years but wanted to help veterans play a sport he enjoyed, so he started the MRF. The MRF puts on eight-week adaptive indoor racquetball clinics all across the country. Over a four-week span during the last two weeks of September and the first two weeks of October, the organization hosted adaptive racquetball clinics in Manhattan, N.Y.; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; Augusta, Ga.; Fort Hood, Texas; Killeen, Texas; Phoenix/Prescott, Ariz.; Portland, Ore.; and Des Moines, Iowa. 

Harper and the MRF help wheelchair players get started in the sport, and he acknowledges with outdoor racquetball, you have to be more aggressive. 

“In indoors, you can wait because the ball is enclosed. Indoors is like a cube, if you will, an enclosed cube. So therefore, if you hit the ball off the back wall, the ball will come back into play,” Harper says. “Unlike outdoors, it’s like tennis because once the ball gets by you, the ball is gone.”


The Basics

Racquetball operates with standard racquetball rules, and players use the usual ball and racquet. And like tennis, you can play either singles or doubles and compete indoors or outdoors. 

There are only two differences between indoor racquetball and outdoor racquetball. 

In outdoor racquetball, there is no back wall or ceiling. Outdoor players have only three walls (front and two side walls, with walls being brought in) to hit, while indoor players have five (front, two side walls, a back wall and ceiling). 

Also during an outdoor game, if the ball hits the line during a return, it’s considered a good ball. But if the ball hits the short line on the serve, it’s considered short and a bad serve. Every other line is considered good.

Retired U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steven Harper has played able-bodied racquetball for the last 18 years but wanted to help veterans play a sport he enjoyed, so he started the MRF. The MRF puts on eight-week adaptive indoor racquetball clinics all across the country. Over a four-week span during the last two weeks of September and the first two weeks of October, the organization hosted adaptive racquetball clinics in Manhattan, N.Y.; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; Augusta, Ga.; Fort Hood, Texas; Killeen, Texas; Phoenix/Prescott, Ariz.; Portland, Ore.; and Des Moines, Iowa. 

Harper and the MRF help wheelchair players get started in the sport, and he acknowledges with outdoor racquetball, you have to be more aggressive. 

“In indoors, you can wait because the ball is enclosed. Indoors is like a cube, if you will, an enclosed cube. So therefore, if you hit the ball off the back wall, the ball will come back into play,” Harper says. “Unlike outdoors, it’s like tennis because once the ball gets by you, the ball is gone.”

Attributes & Angles

The game is usually played indoors, but there are outdoor matches and tournaments, like at late September’s 3WallBall Sports Festival in Las Vegas. 

The 3WallBall Sports Festival, played near the Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower, offers a mixed doubles wheelchair racquetball tournament, along with racquetball, handball, paddleball and pickleball for able-bodied players.

Four wheelchair players participated in this tournament, and each was paired with an able-bodied person and played against another wheelchair/able-bodied team. They played two games with that teammate, with games going to 11 points and four matches overall.  

Hoffman attended the 3WallBall Sports Festival and enjoyed the new competition. According to Hoffman, there are two main types of wheelchair racquetball players — aggressive and patient. With his long, brown beard and long, brown ponytailed hair, he looks more like an aggressive player. But actually, he’s the opposite. 

“I was taught I had to be the patient guy, so staying in the middle, having a strong, hard serve, a lot of spacial control, really focusing on being patient, playing off the back wall and finishing shots, where as an aggressive guy, he’s keeping up with everything, everything, everything, everything, everything,” says Hoffman, as he snaps his fingers. “What an exhausting way to play. But if you play it right, then you can really set a guy like me off-kilter just because I want to sit back. If you do a little, like, cut-off shot in front, I’m done ‘cause I have to sprint all the way upcourt.”

Hoffman likes playing singles more than doubles, mainly because he can work more angles and has more space around the court. He thinks figuring out angles is the most important part of wheelchair racquetball. 

“I feel I’m definitely limited in a lot of angles and I have to think of things differently, especially playing in the sports chair because you can move a lot more fluidly and you can’t tip backwards. So, it’s like you can move backwards, you can turn, switch,” Hoffman says. “But with outdoor, it makes it even harder because in indoor, you at least have that safety net of the back wall to play off of, where here it’s attack, attack, attack, and for a wheelchair user that’s really hard.”

Las Vegas resident Cedric Delong started playing even more recently than Hoffman. The 54-year-old Navy veteran just picked up the sport in late July. Delong had played wheelchair tennis and has participated in a handful of sports — wheelchair basketball, wheelchair softball, seated javelin and seated discus — at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), co-sponsored by Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). 

But once his recreational therapist at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System helped get him involved in wheelchair racquetball, he was hooked. He actually likes it better than tennis because it keeps him moving.

“You get a release from whatever tension. It’s great, relaxing. It relaxes you ‘cause you’re not thinking about the stresses and whatever it is you’re going through. You’re thinking about the ball coming off the wall and if you’re going to hit it back,” says Delong, who sustained L1 and L2 SCIs during a San Francisco biking accident in 1984. “That’s what you think about and that’s a good thing, especially when you have problems. Because we all are acquainted with problems, as we live and breathe.”

Fun For Young

While Hoffman likes the sport for its competition and Delong likes it for the exercise, Sharona Young just likes it because it’s a new sport for her and fun. The Navy veteran and Florida resident enjoyed her first 3WallBall Sports Festival two years ago so much that she made a return trip last September. 

She met Harper at a wheelchair racquetball exhibition at the NVWG in Salt Lake City the summer of 2016, and he invited her to come out to Las Vegas that fall. She did — and then promptly was thrown into games without having any experience. 

“He threw me in right away and said, ‘You’ve got it.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait, you do realize I’ve never played this before, right?’ He was like, ‘You’re good, you’re good,’” says Young, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2013. “It was a little intimidating because it was such a new sport, and I’m playing for the first time at this huge tournament. It’s like, ‘Oh, OK.’â€ٹ”

Young, 37, had played wheelchair tennis before. But she thought wheelchair racquetball was way different. It’s also more competitive since you’re on a small court and your opponents are right in your face. 

“I feel like in tennis, I move more. This one, you’ve got to, like, be more strategic with your positioning, whereas with tennis I’m constantly moving, and I can get to the ball. But here, you’ve kind of got to be in a good spot,” Young says. “You’ve got to watch for the ball but also watch where the other people are, just the techniques and the strategies of positioning.”

Young convinced her friend, 50-year-old Air Force veteran Mary McGriff, to come to Las Vegas and join her for some girl time and racquetball fun. 

The two Florida residents have gone to the Bahamas together, attended the NVWG together and now added another sport and event to their list. 

McGriff loved it. Although she struggled to master moving the wheelchair in time and in the right direction in order to hit balls fast enough, she finally had a revelation. 

“The funny thing about yesterday, my very first game I was playing the left side for a whole game and a half, and then my partner was like, ‘Have you played on the right side?’ And I said, ‘No.’ She goes, ‘Let’s put you on the right.’ And as soon as they did that, I had power, I was hitting the ball better and then we realized that that’s my side,” McGriff says. “And then today, that’s the side I played on and we ended up winning both games. Yeah, I guess I have a great backhand and power on my right side. My right hand is my dominant hand. But it’s easier for me to hit the backhand than it is to hit sideways.”

As for Hoffman, he’ll return to the event again and hopes he’ll get even better with more practice and matches. For newcomers, he suggests that they learn their bodies.

“Learn what you can and can’t do or what your strengths are. ‘Cause when you get into a sports chair, especially, everything’s faster,” Hoffman says. “A lot of time, sports chairs, I know, at least for mine, the back on mine’s a lot lower, so I sink a lot differently. Your feet are easily farther back. So, if you don’t have good body awareness of what you can and can’t do and what you should watch out for, it’s even harder because there’s even more variables you have to worry about.”

 

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