‘They call me the Walrus’ says racquetball champion Brent Walters
His black headband on, his racquet gently spinning in his hands, Brent Walters sits quietly on a bench facing the center racquetball court on the top floor of the Alexander YMCA.
It’s a Wednesday evening, a time reserved for him and his friends to indulge in their favorite pastime. Walters is focused on the friendly doubles match in front of him when one of the regulars, unfazed by the deafening bounces off the walls and the balls whizzing through the crowded court, smiles.
“These guys are good,” he says. He then points in Walters’ direction. “But just wait until you see the real good guys play.”
Walters’ 5-10 frame and southern drawl don’t unveil him as a record-holder. And to an untrained set of eyes that can’t discern the subtleties of the sport — how much harder he hits, how much lower he places the ball, how much easier he gets to balls because of his natural instincts — he doesn’t seem that much different from the rest of the Wednesday evening bunch.
Because of racquetball’s small footprint, most of Walters’ accomplishments fly under the radar. But to those who know him and play with him — the Raleigh resident is, in fact, a big deal.
At the men’s open singles national championship in Denver, Colo., this past weekend — an event featuring the sport’s best amateur players in the country — Walters, 38, won his 14th and 15th national titles.
The national accolades add to his stacked portfolio: 18 total state championships, six North Carolina racquetball athlete of the year awards. Earlier this year, Walters notched the accomplishment he’s most excited about: winning the men’s open singles state championship for a sixth time, breaking the record previously held at five.
“He’s a power player,” said Frank Engel, who regularly competes with Walters. “He hits the ball harder than anybody I’ve ever played with ... He’s probably going to be inducted, I bet sometime in the next 10 years or so, into the amateur racquetball hall of fame.”
As a kid, Walters and his family were members of The Sports Center, a sports and social facility in Fayetteville that Walters would later call his second home. The club had outdoor tennis courts, a swimming pool, a restaurant with a bar, a mini pro shop, a hair salon and more, including some of the best racquetball facilities in the southeast.
One afternoon, when a thunderstorm closed the pool briefly when Walters was 13, a friend of his asked him if he wanted to play racquetball in their downtime, and he did. Interest turned into obsession.
He recalls spending 8-10 hours a day of his childhood summers in The Sports Center, which included Saturday morning clinics with his brothers and coach, and the “Wednesday night Jackpot” round-robins, where a teenaged Walters hung tough with talented adults.
“These weren’t your Saturday afternoon players,” said Lee Tart, a manager of The Sports Center and Walters’ childhood coach. The Sports Center drew some of the best racquetball talent on the east coast. “It just made him better. And before long, it was like, ‘Oh, you got to watch out for Brent!’”
By the time he was at East Carolina, Walters said, he won an intramural championship without surrendering a single point, scoring 120 straight points.
After college, Walters tried his hand playing racquetball professionally, on the International Racquetball Tour, or IRT. Walters played pro for two years before tearing his ACL in January 2004, when he was 23.
The injury was one deterrent, but making money as a pro was tough, too, Walters said. Today, per TotalProSports.com, racquetball’s No. 1 player in the world, and arguably the greatest of all time, Kane Waselenchuk, makes $300,000 a year in prize money from tournaments and endorsements. But Waselenchuk is widely considered to be in a class of his own.
Walters said that there are several challenges to growing racquetball as a sport, in part because the constrained courts make it difficult to televise. To combat these challenges, he promotes it wherever he can. He coaches the N.C. State club racquetball team, is an official racquet stringer for most tournaments he competes in and sits on the board of directors for the North Carolina Racquetball Association, as the historian.
But he’s not done winning, either. Walters said one of his goals moving forward in his career is to double that previous total, to win 10 state championships, and to become the oldest player to win a state title.
“I’d like to win at 40, kind of like Tom Brady,” Walters said.
As Walters walked up the steps in the YMCA this particular Wednesday evening, he saw a white board in the hallway adjacent to the racquetball courts that normally isn’t there. In different-colored dry-erase markers, the board bids a congratulations to “Alexander’s very own, Brent Walters,” for his pair of recent championships.
Walters pulled out his iPhone — “I had no idea they did this” — and snapped a picture.
On these Wednesdays that this tight-knit community has claimed as its own, his accomplishments were treated like the big deal they were. Then he put his gear on and quietly awaited his turn to play, preparing to prove himself again.