When Leah Upshaw steps on a racquetball court, she's in her element.
Leah Upshaw recently won a national racquetball title.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
But when the Evans resident made her tournament debut last year, another competitor thought Upshaw was out of her league.
"One of the women says, 'So - this is your first tournament, and you're playing in the 'A' division? Don't you want to start down a little?,"' Upshaw said of her welcome at the 2001 State Championships in Atlanta.
"I got real nervous at that point, and thought maybe I'm not where I should be."
She wound up winning the Women's A division title, and the 36-year-old mother of three hasn't slowed down since.
In the past 15 months, Upshaw has won a medal in every event in which she's played, including 10 golds and six silvers.
Among her performances were firsts in both the state and regionals last year in Women's A. She also advanced to the quarterfinals at the 2001 Nationals in Houston, Texas, and added a second at the 2002 Women's Open in Atlanta.
"I've been playing for 16 years, but it's always been for fun and exercise," Upshaw said after a recent practice session at Patriots Park. "Competing is a whole different game. It's a lot of work, a lot of focus and concentration, and that's pretty much what got me through the Nationals the first time around."
The second time around has been even better.
Upshaw, who is in the Air Force Reserves, played for the Air Force Team at the Armed Forces Tournament in San Antonio, where she won the Women's Open Division in May. The following week she took the Women's A division at U.S. Nationals in Houston.
Those showings earned a sponsorship from Wilson Sporting Goods.
"It was a great two weeks. I was on a streak," she said. "This has been a whirlwind. I may just want to quit right now, while I'm ahead."
The Massachusetts native says her military ties and racquetball prowess go hand in hand. Upshaw's ongoing Air Force career began with four-years of active duty from 1984-88, and she explains, "Every military base has racquetball courts, and there was always somebody to play."
She credits her husband, Chris, with supporting her foray into tournament play - Chris also is urging Leah to attend Racquetball Elite Camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and he's encouraging her to compete in the U.S. Open.
Leah doesn't need any prodding to enter the 2002 Georgia Games Championships - she is defending champ in the Women's Open Division, and is ready to defend her crown in the single-elimination event, which will be staged July 12-13 at Patriots Park Gymnasium.
She's also considering testing her skills in the Men's division during the Georgia Games. "Heck, this is a tournament in my hometown," Upshaw says. "I don't just want to play in one division."
Elton Autwell regularly practices with Upshaw at Patriots Park, and he believes she has the game to challenge the men.
"I've seen her take on some of the top guys that play here and give them a run for their money," Autwell said. "It's quite amazing what she's done, and I think that's because she's willing to listen to advice."
Upshaw readily provides some advice of her own.
"On any given day, you can be beaten. I'll always remember that. There are women I honestly feel are better than me, but I have beaten them. I don't know what it is that allows me to win. Maybe it's just being aggressive and not giving up."
Racquetball is a sport which requires stamina and strategy - the ball ricochets around the court at more than 100 mph, and Upshaw uses speed and staying power to her advantage.
Still, after years of recreational play, to attain so much success in a 15-month span indicates something more.
Is it form, patience, concentration? Or perhaps an internal force which fuels the engine of desire?
Most likely the latter.
"Yeah, I'm competitive. I won't deny it," says Upshaw, providing insight to a warrior's mind-set. "You are out there to win. Does that sound bad?"
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