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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Racquetball revolt hits Columbia

The issue of childhood obesity might be all the rage, but about 25 passionate racquetball and handball players came to the Columbia Association board meeting Thursday night to fight a plan to remove two of their courts to make room for more children's programs.

Bob Bellamy, director of sports and fitness, said the CA has been studying ways to make more room for children's activities for two years, and finally had a $380,000 plan to remove two courts at the Supreme Court Sports Club off Snowden River Parkway to do it. Bellamy said he had collected statistics showing that usage of the courts was declining along with the popularity of the sport.

But residents like John Marty came out in strength to debunk the idea.

"We're the proverbial polar bears with the shrinking glaciers," Marty, a former CA employee, told the board.

"I lost 65 to 70 pounds. I've gone from being morbidly obese to now," said Seth Vinisky, 33. He sometimes plays for four-hour stretches, he said, and has torn calf muscles and endured both rotator cuff and elbow surgery from sports injuries. "You just keep playing until you can't walk anymore," he said.

Jose Jimenez said he immigrated to the United States 15 years ago and began playing racquetball two years later. Now he's co-coordinator of a league. "I'm in that club every day of the week," he said, playfully tossing a blue racquetball toward the seated board members. "The ball is in your court," he said to laughter and cheers.

Before any of the 15 speakers began talking, CA President Phillip Nelson announced that he had received "a vast number of e-mails" about the court issue and is postponing any action until the staff schedules a series of meetings with players and their supporters. "No further planning will be done until we strike up a dialogue," he said. But that assurance didn't stop people from speaking.

Ken Marx and others said they'd drop their CA membership if they couldn't find a racquetball court to play on. Dan Ho said there were 25 courts in Columbia when he started playing 25 years ago, but now that's down to 10, and it's hard to find an open one in peak after-work and weekend hours. The statistics are wrong, he said, because many players don't make reservations.

"We're passionate players," he said. "This is a lifetime commitment, a lifestyle. I've played for 40 years."

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