Spotlight on Leon Thomas: USA Racquetball Real Racquetball Champion -- December 2022
by Karen Grisz
Spotlight on Leon Thomas
USA Racquetball Real Racquetball Champion -- December 2022
Coach Leon believes that learning to play racquetball teaches youth players more than just the game. From the www.racquetballrevival.com website: “Racquetball teaches many life lessons, including discipline, preparation, and determination. It instills within players confidence and sportsmanship. Most importantly, playing racquetball is fun!”
Coach Leon is the embodiment of these ideas. Racquetball Revival started with one kid, who for weeks watched Leon and his friends play racquetball at the Merritt Athletic Club while his mom was using the recreation center pool. He was six years old. Finally, the mom asked if anyone could teach the youngster how to play. Leon agreed, and the lessons began. Other kids saw, and they wanted to play, too.
Leon faced many hurdles getting an official program started. After watching the speed at which the adults played, parents were afraid their kids would get hurt. Leon explained that he teaches the kids without racquetballs at first – they learn to hit a balloon, a sponge ball, etc. They weren’t going to be hitting the ball 100 miles an hour! He had to get official approval from the club, and he had to convince the other members that the kids wouldn’t use all of their court time (as with many places, the facility was down to two courts).
By early 2020, Leon, with the help of two other coaches, were teaching racquetball to 17 kids through group and private lessons. They even had internal tournaments, with the older kids helping the younger ones. But the Baltimore area is facing the same racquetball crisis as the rest of the country: loss of courts. During the pandemic, the club repurposed its courts.
So, Coach Leon re-grouped. He started reaching out to Baltimore County officials and the local recreation councils in the area to find a place for the kids to play. He had to sell the program to people who knew nothing about racquetball but who did embrace helping the youths of their communities.
Parents wrote letters to support Leon in his quest. He reached out directly to the manager of the White March Recreation Center and (over time) got him on board before officially going to the White Marsh Recreation Council to get approval of his program at their recreation center.
It is now bigger than ever! They have 29 kids ranging in age from 6 to 17. The older kids help teach the younger ones, and they support each other in all facets of life. These kids are making lifelong friends and learning skills well beyond how to hit a racquetball. And, the manager of the recreation center has even started learning to play!
Coach Leon reached out to me before our annual Christmas Classic LPRT Pro-Am tournament in Severna Park, Maryland, which was held in early December. LPRT Commissioner T. J. Baumbaugh arranged for the LPRT to put on a clinic for the kids. Several of the older kids also played in the tournament – a first for them. They had a great time and were star-struck meeting and watching the best players in the world. They gained some great competitive experience and came away from it determined to get better and compete again soon. Mike Grisz and I (tournament directors) were impressed by the kids’ demeanor on and off the court; they were respectful, friendly, helpful, and supportive of each other. The parents came to watch, and families who didn’t play in the tournament came to watch their friends.
We always say that racquetball is a community, and Coach Leon is instilling that into his players. He focuses as much on how they are doing in school and other activities as he does on the game. It is clear how much these kids look up to him as a mentor on and off the court. Coach Leon is truly a racquetball hero.
The organization charges a minimal fee -- $40-$50 a quarter per player -- for regular lessons, group play/events, etc. Various donors help offset these costs, sometimes donating enough for whole quarters. Others donate equipment and supplies to the players and volunteer when they have racquetball events.
If you might like to help support their efforts; read more about their plans; or have a child in the Baltimore area who might like to learn the sport, please visit their website: https://www.racquetballrevival.com/.