U Soph Is One of Best Racquetball Players in World

If not for the sport of racquetball, University of Utah student Kristen Walsh literally might not be where she is today.

Her parents, Mike and Marianne Walsh, met on the racquetball court 22 years ago.

Now the racquetball court is their 19-year-old daughter’s calling.

The U sophomore is ranked No. 1 in the world in her age division?18-and-under (although she is 19, the age cutoff is Jan. 1, so she can still compete in the division until the new year)?and ranked No. 5 on the pro tour, having taken second place at the year’s first tour stop in Charlotte, N.C.

But her current standing as reigning women’s U.S. Intercollegiate champion, World 18-and-under champion and U.S. National 18-and-under champion didn’t come without years of labor.

“I was in the gym when I could have been out with friends,” said Walsh, who started competing in racquetball tournaments at age 5.

Her hard work paid off. Walsh got so good she needed a coach.

At age 14, she was introduced to coach/family friend Rick Strout by her mother. Between ages 14 to 17, Strout trained Walsh, working on her strategy, conditioning and mental approach, as well as the one on-one game.

“Her magic in her game is with her abilities,” Strout said. “She hits the ball extremely hard. You have to hit a dead winner or she’ll get it.

“She’s the best athletic game player I’ve taught in 19 years,” said Strout, general manager of the Metro Sports Club and Sportsmall club pro.

Walsh’s list of wins piled up. At Salt Lake City’s Skyline High School, Walsh won the national high school title in 1999 and the doubles title with teammate April Watson in 2000.

Strout’s individual tutelage contributed to Walsh claiming multiple junior national titles, beating out competitors from Canada, Mexico, Germany, Ireland, China and Bolivia. She was the 18-and-under singles division winner in 2000 and 2001, the 16-and-under champion in 1999 and the 12 and under winner in ’95.

At nationals, Walsh won the junior doubles titles with Kristen Czuk in 2000 and 1999, and with Jeni Fuller in 1996 and ’95. Walsh also won 18-and-under mixed doubles with Stephen Lewis in 1999 and Brent Walters in 1999.

In addition, she won singles world titles from the International Racquetball Federation in 1996, 1999 and 2000, from ages 14 to 18. She won doubles titles in ’95, ’96, and 2000, and a mixed doubles with Joel Worthington of Kansas in 1995.

Following her senior year at Skyline, Walsh decided on a change of scenery. She took a racquetball scholarship at Baldwin Wallace College in Cleveland, Ohio, for the 2000 01 school year. Walsh helped lead the team to the 2001 Intercollegiate Championship. She earned the 2001 intercollegiate women’s title and won the doubles competition with teammate Ells Summers.

But Baldwin Wallace was not for the homesick Walsh, who moved back to the Wasatch Front for her sophomore season.

“It was fun to be on my own for a bit, but I like it back here,” she said.

Although there is no campus racquetball team?club or University-sponsored?Walsh keeps her game at a premium.

She stays in peak form playing against male pro/Sportsmall club pro Brian Pointelin.

“She pushes me harder than any other guys that I play,” Pointelin said. Pointelin just earned a spot on the U.S. National Team, but realized he owed a lot of the accomplishment to Walsh.

“I give her lots of credit. She has pushed me as a player,” said Pointelin, who said training with Walsh was a primary reason he moved to Utah a year and a half ago.

“We have a great time together,” he said. “We abuse each other during workouts.”

But the heated sparring doesn’t always end in good spirits. “Sometimes there’s fighting on the court. We’ll walk away pissed off at each other,” Pointelin said. “But if I could pick one person to play with, it would be her.”

Walsh herself is employed as a racquetball pro at the Sportsmall. She started in July, teaching the game to eight people a week.

“It’s funny teaching people twice my age,” Walsh said.

In between teaching the game and playing in tournaments, Walsh finds time to attend the U. She plays in 21 tournaments yearly, with 12 tournaments collegiately sponsored. This means the undeclared sophomore must maintain the 12-credit hour per semester stipulation.

On average, she’ll be gone to tournaments every other weekend. However, Walsh recently returned from playing in tournaments for six straight weekends.

“The worst part is traveling a lot, being out of town. It’s hard to have a social life,” she said.

But Walsh believes the positives outweigh the negatives.

“If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be playing,” Walsh said. She said the championships and pro tour are nice, but her supreme goal is the Olympics.

Walsh is currently on the adult national Olympic racquetball team. If she stays on course, she would represent the United States when racquetball is an Olympic sport in 2008.

“It’s the ultimate goal, but I can’t dwell on it too much or else it might not happen,” Walsh said.

For now, the goal is the pro tour. Walsh competes on the tour, but has to qualify into the pro draw once her junior status ends. Once she qualifies, she will compete for the $2,500 purse for first place.

“Sometimes I wish there was more money in the sport,” Walsh said.

But tournament competition isn’t the only place Walsh gets financial backing. She gets travel expenses to various tournaments not from numerous championships, but from corporate sponsorships. Head furnishes her equipment, clothing and other gear. Walsh also gets Ashaway strings and Python grips.

In her most recent appearance on the pro tour in New Mexico Oct. 19 to 21, Walsh was knocked out of the tournament in the quarterfinals by fourth-seeded Kerri Stroffregen Wachtel.

At the first stop in North Carolina, a 14th-seeded Walsh upset the No. 3 and 6 seeds before losing in the final to No. 1 seed Cheryl Gudinas. Her next tournament on the tour will be Nov. 2 to 4 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Her old coach doesn’t think it will take long before Walsh is dominant in the professional ranks like she’s been on the junior tour.

“I think she’ll be in the top three in the national women’s pro tour in nine months,” Strout said.

Walsh’s competitive fire backs Strout’s theory. “[I think I do so well] because I’m determined. I have to be the best,” Walsh said. “If I don’t do well, I’m mad, I work harder.”

She has attitude, talent, a bright future and a passion for the game. It’s the least she can do for the game that gave her life.

In the University of Utah spirit, Walsh wants to start a club racquetball program on the hill so BYU has stiff competition. Although racquetball is “big” at the Y, Walsh never considered playing in Provo.

“It wasn’t an option, ever,” she said.

Walsh hopes to get a team on campus assembled to challenge the Y and push for the Intercollegiate Nationals in March. Walsh asks anyone interested in joining a University of Utah club racquetball program to call her at her home phone, (801) 487 2338.

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