Written by Scott Connell

One has to wonder. Why is Lee Connell dedicating himself today to racquetball, what some say is a sport of yesterday?

Lee Connell curses loudly at himself while trying to make 10 perfect backhand “splats” in a row. Despite training for three hours and poring sweat, the only way Connell will allow himself off the racquetball court is to nail the 10 difficult shots in a row. “Sometimes I get stranded out there for 15 to 20 minutes, almost in tears,” Connell says. “It’s basically non clinical OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).”

While the ending of his on-court training is peculiar, the 24-year-old knows that his work hard work will pay off one day. His credo is “the only thing more dangerous than talent is hard-working talent”, Connell isn’t the typical fitness fanatic you run into at the YMCA racquetball courts, he’s trying to get to the top of the heap of the International Racquetball Tour (IRT) – the world’s highest level of professional racquetball which has tour stops across North America.  He is currently ranked 19th on the IRT.

Connell is nothing if not busy. On top of the weekly training and travelling to tournaments, he also is taking a handful of classes at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Strangely enough, he views university as more a distraction than anything.  “These days I’m simply using school as a way to take the pressure off from racquetball,” Connell says. “I’m not sure what I want to do with (school), I feel I’m just kind of going through the motions with it.

“Racquetball comes first right now. I know it shouldn’t, but it does.”

In the summer – during the racquetball offseason—Connell spends his 9 to 5 hours working for the City of Saskatoon in the parks department. He also squeezes in playing Men’s AA baseball with the Saskatoon Stallions, a full-time job unto itself.

We share the same last name. Connell is my cousin. I once had an opportunity to play racquetball with him when we were in the same high school gym class. Connell was not nearly as good as he is today, but against our classmates (and me) he was a giant leap ahead. Luckily for me, we played doubles and we were on the same team. We began to lose in one game because of my inexperience and the score hit 13-1 – one point from losing. Connell, ever the competitor, became enraged with me and told me to simply “stand in the corner”.

Furious, he took on the other team himself and made short work of them, winning 15-13 as I struggled to pick my jaw up off the floor.  Despite that, we are still great friends and have kept in touch even after I moved to Calgary to study at Mount Royal College. Many of the Connell clan wonder why he keeps at it.

In Saskatoon, the scene for racquetball has deteriorated of late with the closure of the city’s only racquetball club in 2006. Players are now forced to go to either the YMCA or the University to play. Connell says that he has noticed the same phenomenon in other Canadian cities during his travels. “The competitive level (for racquetball) is still strong,” Connell explains, “but the grassroots level here has gone down with the club going down.”

Racquetball – derived from handball and tennis – originated as a high-speed, easy-to-learn alternative to other racquet sports in the early 50s. It’s played indoors in a 20-foot-wide, 40-foot long and 20-foot-high court between either two or four players with a hollow rubber ball that bounces very quickly – some players can hit the ball up to 200 mph. Unlike most other indoor sports, the walls, ceiling and floor are all legal playing surfaces. The game, which peaked in popularity in the 70s, has suffered a steady decline since the 1980s because of waning interest, expensive facilities – many of which have closed – and a lack of visibility (in the media) relative to other professional sports. Also, several newly-popular sports such as lacrosse and soccer have emerged and the number of people playing racquetball decreased.

In the United States, however, the sport has enjoyed a renaissance since its heyday. The International Racquetball Federation’s website says that 5.6 million Americans play the fast-paced indoor sport and 14 million play it globally. L.A. Fitness, a chain of gyms in America that houses four to six racquetball courts per facility, has helped bring the sport back from obscurity through its rampant growth. The fitness chain has grown from five gyms to over 200 in the past seven years.
The re-emergence of the sport in the United States is obvious, where the IRT’s World Championship was held in the grand spectacle of a large glass court in the middle of Denver’s downtown during last September. The same weekend I was in town to see the Rockies and Broncos, and went downtown to watch my cousin play there.

However, following a loss in the final round of pro qualifying for the tour stop against the #15 ranked player, Connell was relegated to the playing his games at the Denver Athletic Club – a posh high-class gym in a high-rise building, blocks from the downtown court – where the separate “open” tournament was held. The club’s “lobby” looked like something out of mid-70s Las Vegas Casino with its oak walls, brass railings and vintage purple carpet. On the second level where the courts were, there were players and a few spectators – most of whom are there to watch members of the gym who aren’t even a part of the open event – on the viewing level. There is a bar on the viewing level, but no one is working at it. Players who lost the game prior referee the game, this holds true in the pro matches as well.

Unlike the U.S. embracing racquetball, Canada is a different story. The land of hockey has not been kind to the sport, with dedicated racquetball clubs become less common and the existing facilities deteriorating at an alarming rate because of high operating costs. In a tournament in Edmonton eight years ago, Lee dove for a ball on the court and felt a slight pain in his thigh area. When he got up, blood started gushing from his leg. Connell had a four and half inch piece of the hardwood floor that had embedded in his thigh, luckily missing all major blood vessels. The club blamed the incident on previous water damage to the court.

“It was best-case scenario all things considered,” Connell says. “Rehabbing it was not fun.” Most people who start racquetball, usually only play it as a break from other sports or just for fun because it lends itself to almost all body types and different styles of play.  Connell got started simply by chance but fell into the competitive part of the sport because of his natural prowess. His coach since he was 12, Loren Prentice, laughs as he remembers Connell’s humble beginnings.  “I remember when Lee was eight and he would come down (to the racquetball club) with his mom (who has played for over 20 years) and bang the balls around (on the court),” Prentice recollects. “I would tell him that he should come out and start playing in tournaments and he would say ‘No, I don’t think I want to’.”

“Nope, I’m a baseball and hockey player,” was his normal response to Prentice, Connell says.

Despite his reluctance to embrace the sport when he was younger – like most of his current competition on the IRT –Lee often came with his mom down to the local club to hit balls while trying to “improve his hand-eye coordination” for hockey and baseball.

After discovering a taste for the sport he thought he’d try his luck and decided to give a competitive racquetball tournament a shot. And it wasn’t pretty. For a kid with an extremely competitive nature and a decent amount of skill in both baseball and hockey, it was tough to go out and have his ass handed to him.  “I almost quit after that first one,” Connell recalls from the ripe age of 12.

Not one to give up, Connell decided if you can’t beat them, join them and enrolled in a local league and lessons. He says he tried another similar tournament and did better and it “just snowballed from there.” He eventually gave up hockey and baseball and racquetball took over Lee’s life. Linda Connell, Lee’s mom, attributes the transformation to the strong racquetball program and coaches present in Saskatoon. ”I think Lee was drawn to the speed of the game and the intensity of the training that goes along with it. I’ve been really surprised at Lee’s single-mindedness at pursuing (his dream).”
His love for the sport has grown. “I love ripping balls,” Connell salivates. “The running around and the adrenaline of the game is why I love it.

“In baseball, if I have a (weak) game, the other guys can pick it up and we can still win. But in racquetball, it’s all me, it’s a different mindset.”

Competitiveness is something that all athletes must possess to function, especially at the higher levels of sport. And Connell is chock full of that. Mild mannered and even complacent about some things (he claims to have invented the word “meh”), Connell is an absolute different person when it comes to anything that could resemble a contest. In a no-stakes game of Monopoly, he has been known to offer the most extravagant deals imaginable: “I’ll give three properties of mine for one of yours and then I’ll give you two free passes for no rent and then 50 per cent thereafter for three more turns,” he recalls. He also had no voice from all the screaming and yelling during the game for the rest of that camping trip.

Back on the court, Connell has been known to yell at himself, “Could I play any worse?” he howls aloud before uncontrollably cursing under his breath during a doubles match at the IRT stop in Denver. The American team look at each other not sure whether to laugh or hide.

“The guy is very intense, passionate, and dedicated to the sport,” says Chris Exner, a former training partner of Connell, “very few people would scream at themselves for a sub-par performance. He would do it at practice, local, and national tournaments.”

He is also famously absent-minded: when he was younger, Connell’s racquetball skills developed to the point that he made the national sport development team (NSD). A perk of being on the NSD is that they reimburse you for a chunk of your travel expenses, but Connell – then 22 – failed to get them because he forgot to file his paperwork on time and received no funds. His parents were not impressed. When making his first foray onto the IRT, Prentice wasn’t worried about how Connell would perform, but if the notoriously unorganized athlete would make his flight or his first matches when he arrived.

Over time however, Connell – an only child who still lives at home with his parents – has become more attuned to life on the road. Catching flights, cramming into overstuffed hotel rooms with others and managing to catch a glimpse of the nightlife are just parts of the gig, though he is still unsure of his organizational skills.  “I hope my (bunkmates on the road) say nothing bad about me,” Connell fears. “I’m a pig, when I put my (luggage) down in the hotel it basically explodes and my stuff somehow gets everywhere. People call it ‘The Connell Explosion’.”

Connell used to be of an average size (180 lbs) but over the years of getting his body into shape – he is now a very lean 165 lbs – Lee had to learn how to eat. Besides eating better, (coach Prentice says Connell now blots grease off of pizza), he’s learned that his intense training requires he eat more.

”Through the years, we have worked with the Sport Science experts and have done three-day food records on various occasions,” Prentice says. “One year after completing his food record the nutritionist said to me ‘Lee eats more for breakfast than I do all day’. The bottom line is he is just a fat-burning machine.”

While playing on the IRT is an enormous commitment physically, the financial commitment by Connell is equally taxing. Several of Lee’s friends from across Canada also play on the IRT but most only make it out to a few pro stops per year because of the sheer dollar figures – Connell says that a trip to a single pro stop (in the U.S.) can cost him as much as $1,200. What sets him apart from his colleagues is that he is going to at least two a month. He’s already been to Denver, Kansas City and Edmonton in 2008 and he plans to go to Memphis, Seattle, San Diego, Sarasota, Chicago, New York City, Orange County and Allentown, Pennsylvania. To accumulate the funds needed for the tour and to pay back the inevitable loans he must take out, Connell works as many days as possible in the summer. This past summer he saved up roughly $8,000. He also manages to score about $5,000 from Sask-Sport and the Saskatchewan Racquetball Association and the Canadian Racquetball Association.

Because of the money issue, the group that Lee bunks with on the road is constantly rotating because most can’t afford to play on tour very often. Because the regulars on the IRT are a relatively small group, it’s a tightly knit community.  “These are some of the best friends I’ve ever had,” Connell says. “The tour guys have been very welcoming and you make a lot of friends on the road.”

“He gets really panicky on the road because he thinks he loses stuff because he’s so unorganized,” says Josh Keil, one of Connell’s rotating doubles partners and tour mate, “and he always has to rush out the door (after he finds it) because he’s late for his match. But it happens all the time so he always seems to figure it out.”

Connell also has a taken on a bit of a leadership role, especially with his local training buddies. He is constantly trying to organize them (and other Canadian racquetballers) into groups to go down to the tour stops and bunk together to cut costs for all of them.   “(In a lot of cases) I don’t think a lot of other players wouldn’t have gone down to the (IRT) stops,” his mother says.

He also is in a three-year relationship with his girlfriend Lisa Kirkpatrick who is a graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan. Connell says the amount of time he spends away from home makes for some hard times for them, especially when he’s gone on back-to-back weekends. They still manage daily contact by phone, email and Facebook which is a big help Connell says.   “At first, I didn’t understand why Lee would try so hard to get to the top of this sport that doesn’t give back as much as others,” Kirkpatrick says. “But I’ve realized how much he loves (the sport) and that he would be lost without it.”
And just a few different steps at an earlier moment in Connell’s life could have had ended it all. When he just eight years old, Connell was hit by a truck at a stop light on one of Saskatoon’s busiest streets: 8th street. His right femur and clavicle were broken. He was in a body cast for several months. Despite the near-miss with death Connell has never dwelled on it much.

He says he feels lucky about it but blames it for his lack of speed on the baseball diamond. While he would never admit it, it seems that the event could have set the stage for what Prentice calls Connell’s “lunch pail mentality”.

“With all of the kids he started out with (in racquetball), Lee is the only one who’s brought consistent intensity to the court,” Prentice says, “He puts in more time and energy than all of them and it shows through where he is now.” It seems as though Connell is tied to the Earth by more than just gravity and he is one of the most grounded “semi-pro” athletes you’ll ever meet.  Being the best in the world at something would be great Connell says, but right now it’s just about getting better at racquetball by playing against top talent on the IRT and playing the sport that he loves. The potential monetary rewards for excellence on the IRT are something Connell blissfully says he’s given very little thought to.

“And besides, only the top eight or so in the world make a solid living,” Connell explains. “To put it into perspective, the winner of the racquetball U.S. Open makes less than the first round losers in the U.S. Open of tennis. Say around $7,000.”
“I’m proud of him,” Linda Connell says. “He’s shown a dogged determination through some devastating losses and exhilarating wins and he still loves this game. It’s easy to keep going if your just winning, but Lee fights through the losses too.  “I have no idea how far this could go for him.”  Prentice thinks that Lee will be a late bloomer in his racquetball career.

“Since he started later (than most) I don’t think he’ll peak for three more years,” Prentice predicts. “Right now, it’s one day at a time,” Connell says ironically –he hates clichés. “Tomorrow, I have school, a lab, a midterm and then I fly to Memphis, and that’s as far ahead as I’m looking.” In fall of 2009, he and Lisa plan to move away for her optometry schooling wherever she gets accepted (Waterloo, ON is her only Canadian option, the other seven are in American centres) and Connell understands that it may affect his game, but he’s staying his usual positive self and thinks this move might help him to play more on the IRT, though he doesn’t expect there to be a local racquetball club.   “Maybe I’ll be able to do this easier, because god knows there are better cities to fly out of than Saskatoon.”

Ten more backhands to go, Lee.