When Rob Nelson of Cloquet entered play at the U.S. Open Racquetball Championships two weeks ago, little did he realize that a few days later, he'd be walking away with a first-place championship medal by winning the Class C 55-and-over age division.
"I never thought I would have a chance," Nelson said after returning home from the Twin Cities. "I never believed I would have gotten that far, let alone winning the whole thing."
Nelson was not the only person who performed well at the event. His playing partner from Cloquet, Mike Balow, finished in a tie for third in the same division as Nelson.
Nelson, Balow and Denny Painter - who all play on Monday evenings at the old Leach School in Cloquet - were joined by Cory and Chrissy Labrasseur and Bill and Mike Schlenvogt, who came to cheer for the trio during the tournament.
Painter and Nelson teamed up to play in the Centurian Division, but bowed out after an opening-round loss. Nelson also played in the Pro-Am with Susie Acosta of Mexico, but they also dropped their first game.
However, after playing in the Pro-Am, Nelson was given a signed racquet by Acosta and it turns out that racquet provided the confidence for Nelson entering individual play.
"For whatever reason, the racquet she gave me just seemed to fit perfectly for my style," Nelson said. "I was able to put the ball where I wanted and I just got on a roll."
That sentiment was echoed by Balow.
"It was amazing when Rob got that new racquet," Balow said. "Rob's confidence went way up and his game was as good as I've ever seen it."
Nelson received a first-round bye in the lower half of the age bracket, while Balow had to play Piergiorgio Ruguetti of Venezuela in the opening match. Balow moved on into the quarterfinals and took a win over Rick Busekrus of Colorado. At the same time Balow was winning, Nelson was taking a quarterfinal win over Cladio Serrapiglio of Venezuela. Nelson needed a tie-breaking set against Serrapiglio. After winning the first set 15-14 and losing the second set 13-15, Nelson reeled off a huge final set by winning 11-1.
"That really got me thinking that I can play with these guys," Nelson said. "I ended up in the same situation in the semifinals, but the confidence I had was sky high."
Nelson beat Brett Dahlgren in the semifinals by coming from behind in a 8-15, 15-12 and 11-8 win. Meanwhile, Balow dropped his semifinal match to John Truitt of Texas 15-13, 15-5.
The semifinals were held Saturday. Nelson got a little more impetus to do well when he found out his daughter and her husband had provided him with his first grandchild. Nora Ann Reimer was born early Saturday, and Nelson found out prior to his semifinal win, but was told to wait to tell everyone. Eventually, Nelson called a timeout. Before returning to his match, he pulled out his cellphone to show pictures of his new granddaughter to the crowd who had gathered.
When Balow and Nelson play against each other on Monday nights, the pair are pretty evenly split, but over the last six months, it has been Balow who has had the upper hand. Nelson was pretty sure he'd have his hands full against Truitt, who had handled Balow in the semis.
"Mike has had my number and I knew it would be a tough final," Nelson said. "We have played each other for over 30 years, and it would have been fun to play each other in the final."
Nelson's concern proved to be true to start the match against Truitt when he fell behind 7-0.
"After I fell behind I said, 'I can't lose this, I need to win this for my new granddaughter,'" Nelson said. "I just decided to go for it and let it all hang out."
Nelson went on a 13-point run, taking the lead 13-7 and eventually taking the first game of the championship against Truitt 15-13.
"I got a lot of help from all the Cloquet people who were there cheering me on and coaching me," Nelson said. "Those guys know my game and they were great at seeing things and letting me know what I needed to do. It was just fantastic having them all there cheering me on when I needed it. Once I came back in the first game, I said to myself, 'This is it!'"
Also on Nelson's mind was his longtime friend and playing partner Jerry Labrasseuer - Cory's father - who was a member of the racquetball club in Cloquet.
"I told Cory, 'This one is for your dad,'" Nelson said. "I came out on fire and never slowed down. The other guy (Truitt) couldn't stop my serve. I think Denny (Painter) and Mike (Balow) said I had 10 ace serves in the match."
Nelson closed out the championship by beating Truitt in the final set 15-3.
"Rob was amazing," Balow said. "His game was on another level. When Rob got to the championship game, we were all so pumped up for him and Rob just overpowered him."