Charlie Pratt, 34, has worn a number of hats in racquetball, from his early days on the US Junior Team, to pro player on the tour while also acting as the IRT’s official referee, to decorated US Team member, to US Junior Team Head Coach, to Athlete Representative on the USAR Board of Directors. He’s a multi-faceted individual, and he tells us in his own words a great deal about himself and his philosophies in this Serving Up the News inaugural feature.
Born and raised: Portland, Oregon
Family: Parents Charley and Deb Pratt, sister Katie
Married for five years to Ceci Pratt, an outstanding racquetball player in her own right.
Education: Colorado State University/Pueblo, psychology and business
THROUGH THE YEARS...
I started playing when I was 7 years old in the Sunday junior program at Sunset Athletic Club here in Portland, Oregon. Once I learned the game, I tried to go to the club almost every day, begging my parents to take me after school. There were a lot of good players at my club. At first, I was too small to play with the adults, so I practiced by myself on the back courts a lot. I started playing junior tournaments, and before long I was playing in every junior tournament possible, including Junior Nationals and then Junior Worlds, which were easy to travel to since they were both in California at the time. In 1997 I won the Gold medal in singles at Junior Nationals in the 10 & Under. From then on I found myself in the finals almost every year, and I was on the US National Junior Team five years straight from 2000-2004. Being on Team USA was perhaps the most exciting time in my life.
What players did you look up to when you were a junior? My favorite player was Sudsy Monchik. He was really fun to watch, and still is. I still watch older matches of Sudsy, Cliff, and the other greats. You learn a lot from watching film, especially from the greatest players of all time. I also got to see the pros play live in Portland a few times when I was a kid. They were larger than life. I really wish I would have traveled to more pro tournaments when I was younger. It is something I would encourage all the juniors out there to do.
I went to CSU-Pueblo, which is a great racquetball school. Some of my teammates were Ben Croft, Mitch Williams, Tony Carson, and many more. It was a great training environment, one which I wish I took more advantage of. At the time, I wasn’t sure what my future in racquetball would be. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in life. I struggled in school, bouncing around from major to major in hopes to find something that would stick, but to no avail.
In 2009 I was offered the job as the official referee for the pro tour. I accepted, which meant I also got to compete in the pro draw every tournament. It was really exciting for me, being on tour full time. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I wanted to give myself one year to see how I performed. Most of the events, I would qualify into the Round of 16, then play someone like Jack, Rocky, Kane. I’d lose, then go on to ref the rest of the matches. Even though I spent more time holding a microphone than a racquet, I was learning a lot by watching the best players in the world. Hundreds of hours standing outside the court, watching every rally intently. I know it helped me see the game differently. I soaked it up like a sponge. I was able to climb to #11 in the World. I decided to continue.
In my second year on tour I started getting some good wins, beating some top 10 players. I began to believe that I could compete with the best, so I continued playing, making my way to #8 in the world. I continued to slowly get better throughout the next few years, making a few semifinals and winning a few pro doubles draws, but I had yet to make any real run at a top spot on tour. Around 2015 I wanted to take a break from playing full time. It is not that I was done playing, I just didn’t want to travel as much, and I wanted to start working a “normal” job. The decision helped my game because I had more time to prepare and train in between tournaments, and I could pick and choose which events I wanted to go to. My ranking dropped, but I still felt like a threat in any draw.
Move to Florida
At the end of 2016, I was offered a job in Gainesville, Florida, managing a personal training studio that emphasized plant-based nutrition (in which I hold a certification). My wife Ceci and I made the move across the country. Florida could not have been any more different from Oregon. We enjoyed many things about it, especially the racquetball community, and I was enjoying my job. Ceci opened her own yoga studio, and I was very proud of her for that.
Around the same time that I moved to Florida, USA Racquetball was accepting applications for the Junior Team Head Coach position. I applied, honestly not thinking I would be the one to get the job, but I did. That brought on new challenges and a whole new outlook on the game. Focusing on helping our juniors improve really helped me stay focused on what I myself needed to do to improve. I am a believer in leading by example. The best way I was going to convince the juniors to follow my advice is to show them firsthand that it works. In a way, I was not just playing for myself, I was representing the ideals that I wanted to instill in the junior athletes. It is a unique role.
US TEAM COMPETITOR
In 2017, I was honored when Coach Dave Ellis asked me to join the US Team delegation competing in the Pan American Racquetball Championships (PARC) in Costa Rica. I didn’t know what to expect, being a rookie on the adult team, 12 years after my last year on the Junior Team. I had the tournament of my life, finishing with a silver medal in singles. I had only been in Florida for about a month, but I was on a good training program since I worked in a gym, and it clearly showed in my matches that week.
In 2018 I qualified for Team USA by finishing in the top 2 in singles points. The World Championships were held at the same club in Costa Rica as PARC in 2017. I had several months to prepare for Worlds, and I took full advantage. Those three months were the hardest I have ever trained in my life. I hired a speed and agility coach twice a week, did strength and conditioning twice a week, ran stadiums at the university every Sunday in the Florida heat, biked 25 miles (to work and back) almost every day, did yoga almost every day, and practiced almost every day. I knew for a fact that I was working harder than everyone else. I went to Worlds as prepared as I have ever been. I brought home the silver medal, losing in a close final against Rodrigo Montoya. I would have loved to win, but I knew I gave everything I had into that event and into that entire year.
In 2019 I competed for Team USA at PARC in Barranquilla, Colombia. I took the silver medal in a crazy event. I had the flu just a few days before the event and didn’t know if I would be able to compete. I got well enough to fly there and was able to compete despite being low on energy. I continued to feel better as the event went on and had perhaps the best win of my life, beating Conrrado Moscoso 11-10 in the quarterfinals. I went on to win my semifinal 11-7 despite the air conditioning being broken that day. It was close to 90 degrees and humid in the court. I lost another close final and took home another silver medal.
In 2019 I partnered with Rocky Carson and won the National Doubles Championship which qualified us for the Pan American Games, the biggest platform for our sport. That was perhaps my proudest moment in my career. We went to Lima, Peru, and I played singles and doubles for Team USA. I didn’t perform as well as I would have liked but came home with two bronze medals. It is an experience I will never forget.
ELITE PLAYER REFLECTIONS
What would you say is one of your biggest strengths on the court? I believe it is my mental toughness. I don’t have a lot of physical weapons like a lot of the top players out there. I am not as strong or as fast, but I play smart, stay focused, and I treat every point with importance, no matter what the score is. That is something I have learned through watching film. The best players in the world do not get flustered. They do not show serious emotion. They know that the most important thing is the now, the next point, the next shot. They know that their biggest weapon is their attitude.
Which of your many accomplishments mean the most to you? The one that stands out is the 2018 IRF World Championships where I won the silver medal in Singles. My Tier 1 win in Portland as well. They’re both so different. The one in Portland was unexpected. I was at the World Junior Championships right before that event, with little-to-no time to practice. I think coaching the juniors that week really helped. I may not have been on the court practicing, but I was emotionally invested in the game leading up to Portland. The Adult Worlds, on the other hand, I earned through my dedication. Obviously, I wish I had won gold, but I was still proud of the way I performed. Winning National Doubles in 2019 with Rocky was also amazing and having the opportunity to go to the Pan American Games -- I didn’t think that would ever happen.
What is your approach to nutrition as an elite racquetball athlete? I have been a vegetarian for about 10 years now. I went to a bookstore one day to buy a few books to help my performance on the court. I started reading The Food Revolution by John Robbins. It taught me much more than just nutrition. It broke down the problems with our health as a country -- why heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are the three most dangerous threats to our health and why the food choices we make have a profound effect on our health and environment. I saw a way to make a difference in food choices in general that are really hurting us as a species. I don’t want to be a part of the food system that I know is bad for us, so I try not to make the selfish choice. I eat vegetarian for those reasons, not to enhance performance. I definitely believe there are benefits to eating more plant-based as an athlete, though. It can be difficult when traveling and competing, because there’s not always a lot of time to be picky about your food at tournaments. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve had these accomplishments while eating plant-based. It has been difficult but worth it. It’s a whole different element. If I can be second in the world while eating plant-based, there’s something to it. It shows that it’s possible.
JUNIOR TEAM HEAD COACH
As Junior Team Coach (just renewed in the role through December 2022), what are the most important lessons and philosophies you try to impart to the team? Honesty, sportsmanship, and courage. Honesty with yourself, to know that you are giving everything you have to become the best athlete you can be. Sportsmanship, because we represent more than just ourselves at international events -- we represent our country. Courage, to train and compete your hardest, every match, every practice session, every point. It takes a lot of courage to give 100% and risk the disappointment of it not being enough. Have the courage to risk it all. Believe that you can beat anyone. Belief in yourself is perhaps the most important thing.
What were your biggest challenges in naming a 2020-21 US National Junior Team in the absence of Junior Nationals? The actual naming of the individuals was not the hard part. Really, it was more the logistics -- organizing it, creating the platform, performing the managerial work. Fifty hours of submitted videos needed to be analyzed. It wasn’t difficult, just time consuming. I really enjoyed it, and the coaches learned so much about the players, many of whom we had never even seen before. We took a difficult situation and made something positive out of it, something we could learn from. It was a lot of work for the coaches, advisors, and the many others involved. I am so grateful for their help. They didn’t have to do it, but they did because they care about the athletes.
We really did everything we could to create a fair environment, taking past results as well as current training videos into consideration. We knew this would be difficult, overseeing who makes the team and who doesn’t. Normally, we have no say in the team makeup, which makes it easy. I knew we’d have some disappointed people, and that’s to be expected and respected, but everyone handled the situation well.
We made it all work as a US Team Committee, coaches, advisory group, and staff. It showed that USA Racquetball is dedicated to junior player development and its members. It was really encouraging to see such great support from USA Racquetball.
IN THE PRESENT...
What have you been up to these past 10 months since the pandemic changed everything?
I decided to go back to school. I am now a full-time college student, again. I figure if I am spending this much time at home anyway, I may as well take some online classes. Earlier in life, I didn’t thrive in classroom settings. Back to what I was saying about my college years, I really struggled finding my footing and what I wanted to do in life. I decided to put my education on hold and play the pro tour. I knew I could always finish school later. Looking back, I wish I would have stuck with school and done both. I could have done it. Many people are great students and successful racquetball players. I don’t recommend going the route I took, not finishing my education much earlier. I just wasn’t motivated to continue my studies. Who knows, maybe I could have been a better racquetball player if I’d stayed in school. There are a lot of benefits to you as a person when you are learning.
I’m currently studying history, anthropology, and astronomy. These subjects have grabbed my attention recently, and I have been studying them on my own for a few years now. It feels good to be interested in something else beyond sports and activities only. That was never the case when I was younger. I have changed throughout the years. I am a much better student now. Going back to school makes you feel sharp. My vocabulary is better; I can articulate myself better. A learning brain fires differently. I feel like it will benefit me in sports as well. I’m looking forward to competing and attending school at the same time, and I really feel concentrating on both will impact my game and life in a positive way. I know it has impacted me so far. I find myself genuinely happier, and I enjoy a sense of accomplishment after every assignment turned in.
Where is your head as we wait and hope for this pandemic to pass?
I continued training hard in the beginning of the pandemic but that started to slow down as I realized that we were a long way from any tournaments. I started playing more golf, since it is an activity that has been open. I used to play competitive golf when I was younger but stopped playing as much in adulthood. It has been nice coming back to the sport and competing in tournaments. It has kept me focused on improving, even though it is not racquetball. Part of me thinks it has been a good break. I have been going hard since about 2016, trying to make Team USA each year, competing Internationally. I was starting to get burned out. I am hoping this break will be a good thing, and once the world is at a healthy place, I will be back on the court. I still have a lot of years left.
USAR BOARD OF DIRECTORS ATHLETE REP
If all of the above hasn’t kept him busy enough, Charlie was elected by his peers in early 2020 to be an Athlete Representative on the USA Racquetball Board of Directors. His term began in May 2020 and will expire in May 2024. He represents USA Racquetball on the USOPC’s Athletes Advisory Council (AAC), and he serves on USAR’s US Team and Election Committees.
Thanks to Charlie for taking the time to share his philosophies and lessons through the years. We wish him luck as both a player and a coach as we get this pandemic behind us and he prepares to go full speed ahead!