Brotherhood on the court
From the time he first learned to walk, Jack Huczek has had a racquet in his hands. He still remembers an event he attended in Denver when he was 5. Three years later, at 8, he was playing on a national level as a junior.
"That tournament when I was 5, wow, I remember being in Denver and I remember the excitement," Huczek said. "I remember the hot air balloons and the smell of food. I knew I would like racquetball, even at that age. It all took off from there."
So did Huczek.
He's been ranked as high as No. 1 and has captured the season-ending International Racquetball Tour Pro-Nationals tournament three times, just last month he beat teammate Rocky Carson for the gold medal at the 2009 World Games, which were held in Kaohsiung, Chinese Taipei.
Dropping down in the rankings was all the motivation he needed to climb back to the top. He currently is ranked No. 1 in the International Racquetball Federation world rankings and hopes to keep a hold of that spot.
"I'm in the gym lifting weights and doing my training every week," Huczek said. "I know I'm going to be ready physically. Being ready mentally, like I said, gives me a boost to get back on top. I know what I need to do. When you're No. 1, you want to stay there. It's much harder to stay there. Having been there, I know I can get back. That's the goal. You want to be the best at everything you do."
Even if it means beating your friends. The tour is a close-knit group. Basically, everyone knows everyone else in the sport.
On the court, the athletes are competing for prize money, potential future sponsors and, of course, pride.
"It is kind of like a fraternity," Huczek said. "Once we get on the court, we know what the stakes are. We want to beat our opponent. Of course, you want to win. You'll compete like crazy during the match. There are times when we'll go out for a beer after the tournament and talk about our respective families and what's going on in our lives. We're friends.
"On the court, not so much. You respect your opponent, but you want to win."
Huczek, who lives in the Dallas area, has won many tournaments without a lot of fans in the stands. That's part of the mental challenge of traveling across the country and playing at a very high level.
"You have to be self-motivating in this sport," Huczek said. "There's no way around it. You won't make it otherwise. Sometimes, you'll have fans there or family and friends. If you don't, you have to prepare to play no matter who's watching. I think I've done a good job through the years of doing that. As I've matured, I've gotten even better at it."
Another part of maturing is the understanding that a racquetball career won't last forever. He has plenty of time before that decision must be made. Still, he does think about the future - a time when he's not competing on the court.
"I don't know exactly what I'm going to do yet," said Huczek, who has an MBA in marketing and entrepreneurship from Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. "I'll probably do something with marketing and sales, but I don't know what yet. I have time. But I would like to stay involved with racquetball in my future."
Huczek's passion for racquetball increases every day.
Even though he played virtually every other sport as a kid and through high school, no sport has given him the satisfaction on an everyday basis as racquetball.
"I love every single thing about it," Huczek said. "It encompasses a little bit of everything - hand-eye coordination, agility, speed, strength, endurance, mental toughness.
"I think it's by far the hardest sport,'' he added. "Other sports are challenging, but racquetball has everything wrapped into one physically and mentally. It gives me a new challenge all the time and I love that about it. To me, it's the greatest sport around."
To have the chance to play racquetball for a living is an even greater thrill.
While the economy is down from recent years, Huczek continues to make s living from playing racquetball.
Does it get any better?
"No," Huczek said. "There are a lot of businesses out there that are struggling. I'm very, very fortunate and I know that. I won't complain. You hear stories of people who are struggling and people who are losing their jobs. I'm so lucky to be playing racquetball in tournaments and having the chance to travel all around to do it. This sport has given back to me so much, and I'm thankful every day to be in this position."
It's a position he expects to be in for quite a number of years.
"I'm young and healthy, and I want to play for as long as I possibly can," Huczek said. "I have such a great time playing racquetball and competing at the highest level. I would like to continue doing that. The goal of being No. 1, as I said, is in my sights. I want to be the best."
With the support of his family and his personal drive, it sure sounds attainable.
"I'm very competitive and try to reach every one of my goals," he said. "This is a goal I expect to achieve."
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Andy Jasner is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.