By David (Dirk) Smith, M.Sc, SDL (he|him)
Our managing editor of sports, Dirk Smith, recently caught up with Racquetball World Champion, Rhonda Rajsich, to learn more about her amazing journey in becoming one of the top athletes and overcoming adversity through positivity.
Dirk Smith: Rhonda, please tell us first about your background. You’re quite the accomplished athlete!
Rhonda Rajsich: Thanks. My parents joined a health club when I was two years old that had a nursery where parents could leave their kids while they worked out. My mom would play tennis or do aerobics and my dad would play racquetball. Well, I figured out that when another parent brought their kid in, I could stick a block in the door while they were distracted, use both hands to pry it open and sneak out.
I could never find my mom but I knew where my dad was going to be. So I’d find what court pops was on, run down to the basketball court and grab a basketball, which of course I had to carry like this [gestures like carrying a big box]. When he was in between games, I’d run up, steal his racket and run onto the court. He would play along and let me have my fun, then he’d finally pipe up, “OK kid, give the big people the racket back. What are you doing out here anyway? Where’s your mother?” It wasn’t until I started doing interviews like this that either of my parents realized that I was sneaking out. My dad always thought my mom took me out of the nursery and vice versa.
DS: Wow, you are very sly!
RR: [Laughs] yeah, tight security. That’s where it all started. I played racquetball and basketball, literally, my whole life. I had every intention of playing in the WNBA, and when it was created, I remember getting a phone call from a newspaper asking how I felt about Phoenix getting one of the first WNBA teams. I was like, “where do I sign up?!” I planned to play basketball; racquetball was more of a hobby. I didn’t go to school with other racquetball players like I did with basketball players but I always enjoyed it. Then I finally had to decide my future with basketball after I qualified for the USA National Racquetball Team. I had planned to go out for it, but it happened earlier than I expected, especially because I was more committed to basketball at the time.
DS: But you basically grew up surrounded by the sport, so it’s no surprise you hit the national team so quickly.
RR: I was already judging national team qualifying finals matches when I was 13 years old because they trusted me to know the game well and the rules well enough to agree or disagree with the ref’s calls. I wanted to be a line judge so I could have front row seats to those matches. And those athletes I was judging were the same people I started beating earlier than I thought I would. I grew up watching and emulating them and then suddenly I’m beating them.
DS: You mentioned motivational speaking and brass knuckles. How do they fit in to all this?
RR: I’ve been speaking on and off for over 15 years. At first it was just because I was a professional athlete in a niche sport. But in 2008 I got jumped by two guys with brass knuckles – really! They shattered the right side of my face; my eyeball almost fell out and I was hospitalized. But six weeks later I won the world championships. That’s the Cliff Notes version.
DS: That’s horrible! How were you even able to compete let alone win the world championships?
RR: They [Team USA Racquetball] weren’t going to let me go. They wanted to replace me with an alternate. That devastated me more than getting my face rearranged and having reconstructive surgery because it felt like my world was being taken away from me. I spoke with the head coach and said, “I don’t need my face to hit the ball; my arms and my legs still work!” Well, that won him over and he let me maintain my spot and go. I look back on it now and I’m like, “what the hell were they thinking, letting me go?”
At the time, the last thing I wanted was to be the weak link for Team USA. I honestly believed that I was the best option for us to go. We ended up winning it; I never lost a game nor tiebreaker. In the end, we swept everything. We had two men and two women from the U.S. in the singles final that won, and both of our men and women’s doubles teams won. We won all the individual awards, we won the women’s team award, we won the men’s team award and we won the overall team award – we literally swept every trophy there was to get.
I remember after I hit the winning shot, I congratulated my opponent, I gave her a hug, and then I fell to my knees and started crying. My first thought was, “I’m not even supposed to be here.” Yeah, I mean, I really felt that in two ways because they weren’t going to let me compete, but also the dude that attacked me came at me a second time from behind and threatened to kill me. So winning was a dream come true.
Now, having that new platform to speak from, it’s not even about a professional athlete, it’s about life lessons that can be applied across any age group, any profession, any business structure, any classroom structure and personal life; people just looking for clarity or guidance. I’ve learned so many things through that experience, I know that speaking is the thing I want to do intentionally. I feel if I can help one person or a crowd of 10, or a crowd of 10,000, that’s my purpose now.
I have that platform to use and a powerful story to share, then add “racquetball player” on the end of that. Now I’m taking a year off from playing to write a book, a memoir of my story, experiences, my lessons learned and the message I want to put out to reach even more people. I want to make the most of that opportunity.
DS: What a wonderful story, Rhonda. I appreciate you sharing your insights!