The life of professional athletes is rarely serene. They trade the certainty and comfort of routine for the excitement and ever changing landscape of the vagabond lifestyle. They dedicate themselves to training and improving their craft everyday, as many professionals do, but they also do it often from hotel rooms, health clubs, and in many cases different countries. #5-ranked men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT) player Jose Rojas is no exception, and in the realm of professional racquetball, his calendar over the last year would be considered busy even by athletic standards.
I recently caught up with Rojas to discuss his demanding off-season activities, the first half of the 2015-2016 IRT season, and the training atmosphere in “The 209” (Stockton area code) racquetball community.
History of and Training in The 209
Most players on the IRT have a home base from which they travel to most of the events. Many top players over the years have called The 209 home, including Jose’s brother #7-ranked Markie and training partners #10 Robbie Collins and #16 Jose Diaz, and it has developed quite a reputation because of this.
Run by former IRT professional John Ellis and his father, the legendary coach Dave Ellis, Stockton has a rich history of racquetball even though it isn’t the wealthiest of cities. “I feel lucky to have found racquetball, that we all found racquetball, because without it who knows where we’d be,” Rojas said. “We were blessed to have this sport to provide us with choices.”
He was first coached by his father and then Jody Nance who groomed him into a young player until he decided to go pro and sought the help of Dave Ellis. “Once he became my coach everything became more structured and became more of a training group,” Rojas said. “We all trained together before life started pulling some in different directions.”
With Ellis recently taking a step back from coaching to focus on other areas of his life, the number of players training in The 209 has decreased and the goals have shifted to the future of the sport. “It’s not quite the same anymore,” Rojas said. “Markie and I still train together consistently. Robbie [Collins] is there as well during the season, but the larger group is focused more on the junior kids there now, which is awesome.”
Markie and Jose now have a new coach who chooses to stay anonymous. The change in coaches definitely didn’t seem to adversely affect Jose’s training, as he reached the finals of the 2016 Lewis Drug IRT Pro-Am and he won gold at the Pan American Games, held in Toronto July 2015. “We trained hard all summer and I peaked right when I needed to peak,” Rojas said. “I was extremely confident in my game going into Toronto.”
2015 Pan American Games
Rojas teamed up with fellow Ektelon athlete #6-ranked Jansen Allen to represent The U.S. in Men’s Doubles at the 2015 Pan American Games over the summer in Toronto where they captured Gold. After losing to Canada in their second match of pool play, the team’s road to the final became a lot tougher, drawing top seeded Mexico (Javier Moreno and Alvaro Beltran) in the semifinals.
“We ran into a juggernaut Canadian team who really put it on us,” Rojas said of the team’s lone loss in the tournament. “They utilized the court to perfection. After that loss we had time to regroup. I think the loss actually gave us the little kick-in-the-butt we needed to get on the right track. From that point on we both made more of an effort to play smarter and more solid and we started playing better as a team.”
The loss led to his top moment in the competition (other than winning the Gold medal of course), which occurred in the semifinals against Mexico.
“We were down against Mexico pretty big in the second game; I think 6-12 after winning a close first game,” Rojas said. “I remember telling Jansen that the last thing we wanted to do is go into tiebreaker with these guys, that’s where Alvaro excels. Something clicked in my head at that moment and before I knew it we had come back to win 15-14 and moved on to the finals. They were the heavy favorites going into the event, having not lost in international competition in over 10 years, and to upset them and book our ticket to the final at the same time was definitely my favorite moment.”
Competing on the IRT or Retiring?
Even after his gold-medal performance in Toronto, continuing to compete at the professional level wasn’t ensured for Rojas, who debated retiring before he re-signed with Ektelon, one of the sport’s premier manufacturers. “Ektelon has been nothing but good to me,” Rojas said after the signing. “Whenever I’ve need anything, there is no hassle. They’ve been loyal to me over the years and I couldn’t be more grateful. I’m happy they’ve stuck by my side to still give me a chance to play this game I love. I was actually considering retirement had they not given me a contract, so a huge thanks to them for that. The fact that their equipment is great just makes it a bonus for me which has also always made it easy to play for them. They’re a great company to compete for.”
Speaking of competition, the 2015-2016 IRT season has been one of the more exciting in recent memory thus far, with several young, talented players (Mario Mercado, Sebastian Franco, and Felipe Camacho for example) making deep runs into some Tier 1 draws and climbing quickly up the rankings. Rojas was quick to point to the exponential growth and popularity of racquetball in Latin America as the cause, and thinks that it’s great for the game in general.
“The USA is not the powerhouse anymore because of the junior programs down there [in Latin America],” he said. “They have large, organized junior programs and all the coaches are paid by the government just to coach racquetball. I think that’s fantastic. There are so many great young players coming up.”
While the influx of young blood hasn’t yet seemed to put a dent in the top three with Kane Waselenchuk, Rocky Carson, and Alvaro Beltran holding onto their positions for the moment, the questions on everyone’s minds have to be: when will these youngsters upset the established order and who will be the first to break through that glass ceiling? It’s clear that there are some talented young players out there capable of beating anyone on a given day (except maybe Waselenchuk) so it’s clearly only a matter of time before this happens consistently. Rojas reiterated that the new talent of players will only be positive for racquetball and the IRT.
“I think it will make the Tour better,” he said. “You’ll have more competitive and entertaining matches to watch, which adds value to the Tour and makes it better for everyone involved. I love to compete so I just think it will make the Tour more fun. I definitely see these kids shaking up the rankings which should make for some great racquetball.”
Where does Rojas fit in to this new order? “I want to see Jose Rojas at the top,” he said. “That’s where my goals are and I won’t settle for less.”
Promoter of the Sport
Besides playing in tournaments on the IRT and abroad for Team USA, Rojas wants to see this sport expand and thrive. He loves connecting with his fans on Facebook.com/rojasracquetball. Any given weekend you can find him around the country putting on clinics, holding lessons or hosting a demo for Ektelon.
“I’m trying to create a presence for myself and get my name out there, let people know I don’t just play racquetball but that I’m trying to grow the sport while making a living so that I [and others] can continue to do this,” Rojas said.
By Tim Landeryou
Tim Landeryou is a competitive racquetball player from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He began playing racquetball at the age of 10 and has represented Canada internationally since 2010 and achieved a career-high IRT season end ranking of 16 in 2014-15. He completed his Master of Science in Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan in 2015 and now works as a sport administrator in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.