If a young racquetball player has the talent, they must nurture that with countless hours of hard work on the court and in the gym. Those who support their loved ones in these endeavors indeed are willing to go to great lengths. But what is to become of these dedicated junior hopefuls?
One such young hopeful who is toeing the line of his athletic dreams and financial stability is college student Jose Diaz. Diaz is no stranger to the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT) and has earned national and world championships as a junior. He is currently ranked 16th on the IRT and placed second in the 2015 UnitedHealthcare US Open Racquetball Championships (Pro Doubles with Jake Bredenbeck). Due to his studies, Diaz has missed many events this season but one can estimate that his rank will continue to improve as he continues to play more tournaments.
Diaz grew up in the thriving racquetball epicenter of Stockton, California, and because of his father’s love for the sport, was quickly at home in “The 209” (Stockton area code) racquetball community. By age six, Diaz was competing and by age eight he was winning national titles. “With all the other players [in the 209] (Jose and Markie Rojas, David Horn and The Ellis Family etc.) around me it was easy to keep playing and to keep pushing each other,” Diaz said. “We never thought about stopping.”
Growing up, Diaz was surrounded by more than just racquetball however. Stockton itself, while improving, remained a violent place plagued by class and racial divisions. “My high school was not known for its academics, it was more known for fights and gang violence,” he said. “Racquetball was my way to stay away. It was a way to introduce me to people that helped me find and stay on the right path.”
When asked about his own dreams to be reached Diaz replied with, “To stay ready to upset any of the top guys.” However, after a pensive silence Diaz concluded that, “Playing full time would actually be ideal.” As if going deeper into his own thoughts and bedrock aspirations, he cut himself off, “Actually, I want to be part of the growth of the sport whether that is through the [Reaching Your Dream] Foundation or otherwise. I would like to impact the youth the way I was impacted. I think that racquetball teaches discipline and urges kids to set and strive for goals. Racquetball can teach kids so much, I became more personable and had a healthy outlet for my competitive nature.”
According to The Reaching Your Dream Foundation (RYDF) website, the organization “was established to grow the sport of racquetball through the infusion of new, younger men, women and junior players coming from multiple countries who have faced economic challenges to reach their dream of having a career in athletics and specifically racquetball.” RYDF athletes receive funding to enter tournaments as well as mentorship.
This mentorship comes from #2-ranked Rocky Carson who has partnered with RYDF. Carson takes players like Diaz under his wing at Tier 1 tournaments and helps them understand what it means to be a professional racquetball player both on and off the court.
Diaz is a student with aspirations of becoming a physical therapist, and if it were not for the RYDF he might have had to sideline racquetball altogether, “I think the biggest problem is the talent is there but not being able to go to events because we have to pick things in life like, am I going to pay the electric bill or go to a tournament?” It is easy to see how being helped by the Foundation would not only help his racquetball dreams but also allow him to focus more on his studies than fundraising to build a career as a professional athlete.
For Diaz, racquetball is more than a hobby; it is a way of life. His dedication to the game has spanned his entire life and has only grown.
In preparation for a tournament he will be at the gym twice a day, six days a week. He will train his body in the morning and drill at night. “I put my body through all the torture during these days so that when I get to a tournament I do not need to worry about getting tired,” Diaz said.
Fast, fearless, skillful and charismatic on the court, Diaz always draws large crowds and has all the weapons to score major upsets. He, like many others, hopes to realize the promise of his athletic potential.
Diaz was introduced to the RYDF through long time supporter of Stockton racquetball, Michael Lippitt. Lippitt is the founder and chairman of RYDF. The fit seemed natural as Lippitt has known Diaz most of his life. “Mike and I shared common values and we both felt that I could represent the organization well,” Diaz said. Lippitt, who has a background in behavioral health care and organizational leadership, stresses far more than simply playing racquetball to his athletes. He along with the board of directors at RYDF hopes to instill lifelong strategies of professionalism. “They do far more than help us financially,” Diaz said. “They help us with how to manage things like social media and how to approach sponsors. How to overall be a more well rounded person. They are more experienced and know more about life.” Diaz also thinks that anyone wanting to be apart of the organization needs to be a “sponge,” ready to learn and grow.
At a glance, the RYDF is a great resource for the racquetball community and full of promise. Not only does it help aspiring athletes compete at the biggest tournaments, but it also creates more marketable individuals. Players have more opportunities for growth athletically and personally.
The hope is that after enough exposure these players will be able to support their own careers with prize money and sponsorships. And for Diaz, at least for now, his future in the sport is tied with the RYDF. “I know the product [racquetball] is unique and unlike any other. I think the answer does not lay within the industry, too many people are looking internally and not outside for support. Something just like hashtagging racquetball on social media would be a huge benefit.”
Diaz and the RYDF will march forward into the New Year with hopes of victories, large and small as the second half of the 2015-2016 IRT season picks up. “I think something small can make a big difference,” he said. Diaz who stands tall at 5′ 6″, proves this every time he steps on the court.
By Tim Prigo
Tim Prigo is a lifelong racquetball enthusiast who competed in his first tournament at ten years old in Claremont, California, where he grew up. Since then, Tim has played in many IRT events, ranking among the top 40 at his best. He earned a B.A. in English Literature and Philosophy from Franklin Pierce University in 2009, where he spent many years abroad, traveling, and studying. In addition to regularly contributing stories and match recaps for the IRT, Tim is an aspiring poet and sports journalist. He also is the club pro at Lloyd Athletic in Portland, Oregon, where he now resides.