Queen of the court

If Laura Fenton feels as if she’s got the weight of the world on her back, it’s probably because she does. It’s not merely a result of the nagging injury that’s plagued the world-class racquetball star for nearly a year but also the circumstances that brought her to her new hometown of Kansas City.

Last August, a family member allegedly kidnapped Fenton’s 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and brought her to the Kansas City area. Fenton moved from her Oregon home, found her daughter, and is slowly putting the family back together. “It’s better, but it’s been very difficult,” says Fenton. “It’s been very traumatic on her and on me.”

On top of all the pressure in her personal life, Fenton has been dealing with a cracked lumbar vertebra in her back — an injury that sidelined her for nearly six months and wasn’t properly diagnosed until May. Once doctors figured out the problem, Fenton needed only three weeks of rehab before she was ready to give racquetball another go — and it was right into the fire.

The 38-year-old racquetball star spent Memorial Day weekend in Houston at the U.S. National Singles Championships in a field of 32 of the best players in the country.

“I made the quarterfinals,” Fenton says. “My goal was to get to the semis. You’re always disappointed you don’t get there, but on the other hand, I’m encouraged because I’m making much more progress.”

Racquetball is one of the dozen or so sports Fenton has excelled at since her teen years, but because of her upbringing, it wasn’t until much later in life that she decided to turn pro. “I was raised a Seventh Day Adventist. I was not allowed to play Friday nights or Saturdays because of religion. I wasn’t allowed to play interscholastic sports, but I played a lot of sports outside school.”

At age 30, Fenton decided to give pro racquetball a try, even though it wasn’t tops on her list. “It was never my aspiration to be a pro racquetball player,” she says. “It was more timing and the fact that I had a daughter. If I didn’t have her, I probably would’ve gone back to tennis. I’d watched the women play for years and I felt I had the ability to be at the top with them, and racquetball was my best chance to make the Olympics.” Fenton says racquetball also involved less traveling, which made it easier to bring along her daughter for tournaments.

But once on the court, things are far from easy.

“From hockey to swimming, there’s not a sport I haven’t played. And racquetball is by far the most difficult all-around sport, from a fitness aspect, I’ve ever played. You’ve gotta have great reaction time, muscular endurance, strength, and depth perception. There’s so many things involved at a very high speed. It’s very demanding on your body.”

Those chronic back problems and a short recovery period left Fenton pretty rusty for the U.S. Singles Championships, and though her quarterfinal finish fails to qualify her for the World Championships in singles, she’ll still get a crack at the best players from around the globe.

Fenton and doubles partner Jackie Paraiso head to Mexico in August for the World Championships. The two captured gold in 1994 — one of three gold medals Fenton won that year — and she’s confident they can regain that top spot. “There’s no doubt in my mind we can bring home the gold medal. I should be beyond 100 percent physically by then.”

However, Fenton says that at times this year, she has worried not about getting into playing shape but about simply being in shape to play anything.

“A couple doctors told me I’d never play again, and that catches your attention. And with my daughter, my thoughts are that I want to be able to throw a ball, ride a bike, and go skiing when I’m 50, so I’m thinking racquetball is not my whole life.” But Fenton says that once doctors properly diagnosed her ailments, it was a relief to learn that permanent injury wasn’t likely.

Fenton spent 12 years as a college professor, including a stint at her alma mater, Nebraska Wesleyan, teaching exercise physiology. She now works full time at Home Depot, through the company’s Olympic Job Opportunities Program, which gives athletes the chance to work and still train for an event.

Fenton says it’s unlikely that racquetball will be an Olympic exhibition this year, but there’s always hope for 2004, and by then she could have a new doubles partner. “My daughter, Jennifer, was the Junior (age 10 and under) National Champion last year. She plays a lot of sports, and I don’t push her that she has to play racquetball, but she loves the game.” And Fenton says they could one day play side by side.

“A lot of questions went through my mind when I was injured. I felt like a crippled old lady, and then (my doctors) told me I can be stronger than before. It gives you a lot of incentive. Now I’m happy to be riding a bike next to my daughter, so there’s no question we can play side by side. It’s just a matter of Mom staying in shape.”

Categories: A&E