Teenage racquetball phenom Dane Elkins is low-key about sweeping first-place finishes in three divisions at the USA Racquetball National High School Championships — a feat only accomplished once in the event’s 30-year history. But he lights up with fierce competitiveness on the court.
Ranked 40th on the International Racquetball Tour, Elkins, 18, won the top boys division (crushing Cayden Akins of Texas, 15-2, 15-2), boys doubles with Jared Anwar, and mixed doubles with Atossa Rejaei — all are from Palisades Charter High School in the Los Angeles area. The High School Nationals featured more than 390 players from 40 schools across the country.
With 21 major national junior racquetball championships, Elkins, who started playing when he was five, plans to start classes this fall at Santa Monica College.
“I just want to go to college these next four years and then see after that,” Elkins said when asked about playing professional racquetball full time. “I’m definitely going to keep playing. I just don’t know as a career if that’s what I’m going to do.”
One of his mentors, pro racquetball legend Cliff Swain, believes Elkins has “unlimited” potential on the IRT.
“I think he’s good enough right now to be highly ranked on the pro tour,” Swain said. “If he gets better at things, he’s going to have a lot easier wins, a lot less surprising losses. He’ll get steadier and then he can develop another weapon or two. Then, he can beat anybody.”
Describing Elkins as “all ears, all the time,” Swain noted that he’s a great learner who follows suggestions.
“He makes the change immediately, which is really uncommon in a kid, especially when you throw in some technical stuff,” Swain said. “But I knew he really wanted to get better. No matter how great an athlete you are, if you do things incorrectly it’s likely not going to get done.”
Overall, Elkins is strong with no glaring weaknesses and an “extremely hard worker” on the court, Swain continued. Adding a few more miles per hour on his forehand to make his serve even more of a weapon is something Swain said Elkins should work on. “His serve is already really good,” Swain said. “But if you look at the best players over time, they usually have that, it gets you out of a lot trouble.”
18 used to be the critical age where the top pro racquetball players surged ahead of the competition, like Swain, Kane Waselenchuk, Sudsy Monchik and others. But players today in many sports train better, eat better and prolong their careers, Swain said.
Elkins feels he needs more experience playing top players, improving his footwork and being more consistent with execution. “A lot of parts of my game are not what I want them to be when I watch videos,” Elkins said, while taking a break from an internship on Wall Street day-trading in New York.
Someone who is not surprised by Elkins’ success is another longtime mentor Debbie Tsinger-Moore.
“Dane matured with coaching as got older,” Tsinger-Moore said, who began working with him when he was eight. “Winning high school nationals was a big goal. Dane can do well on the pro tour if he trains hard and puts his mind to it.”
Despite being critical of his game, Elkins pointed out that getting past the quarterfinals in the National High School Boys Gold Division this year was among his biggest moments. Elkins won in a tie breaker over John Dowell, of Missouri, 15-6, 13-15, 11-4. “I never got past the quarters until I won it this year,” Elkins said. “That quarterfinals match was just a big mental block for me.”
Ever the perfectionist, Elkins is an eight-time member of the USA National Junior Racquetball Team (indoor and outdoor), a six-time USA Racquetball All American, a three-time USA Jr. Olympic All American, a three-time USA Racquetball High School All American, and a two-time USA National Singles Champion (boys’ division, 14 and 18).
Though college is the priority, Elkins intends to train harder this year and push himself further.
“A lot of it for me is getting on the court,” Elkins said, “waking up in the morning and saying I’m going to go play racquetball. I’m going to work out. But once there, I’m thinking let’s make the most out of it.”
By Jim Medina
Jim Medina is an award-winning journalist who got hooked on racquetball at the former Dan Gamel’s Racquet Club in Fresno, CA. A graduate of Fresno State, he now lives in Oxnard, CA. He is an A-level player striving to raise his game with the help of a thriving racquetball community at LA Fitness in neighboring Ventura. He is a media consultant who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.