Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when you could have built a case for it being America's fastest-growing sport, racquetball has declined in popularity, but you can still find a hot game on a cold winter evening at two athletic clubs in Columbia.
During racquetball's heyday, the Columbia Association opened 28 courts at Supreme Sports Club in Owen Brown village and the older Columbia Athletic Club in Harper's Choice village. Court time was at a premium for the game, a blend of handball and squash in which players using stubby rackets compete by trying to keep a small rubber ball they alternately hit against their enclosed court's walls from bouncing more than once.
But figures from the United States Racquetball Association show the sport saturated its market, reaching its peak in popularity in the mid-1980s.
As interest waned, many clubs that had opened nationally closed or began turning their courts into exercise studios and areas for free-weight training, which was coming into vogue.
Locally, Supreme Sports Club is down to 10 courts from an initial complement of 16, and the Columbia Athletic Club has five courts, seven fewer than the 12 courts it had at one time.
Nevertheless, dedicated racquetball enthusiasts who live in the area are managing to keep the sport alive.
"We run leagues [that] serve about 100 players regularly," said Steve Mendelsohn, athletic director at Supreme Sports Club.
There are at least as many non-league participants who play early in the morning, in the evening and on weekends by reserving court times up to a week in advance.
Leah Kleinberg, general manger of Columbia Athletic Club, said about 80 people play regularly there.
"There's no league play," she said, but "the courts are pretty well filled this time of year between 4:30 and 9." The club also has a seven-day advance reservation policy that is useful this time of year, when play is especially popular.
The leagues at Supreme Sports Club provide competition three nights a week for players at skill levels ranging from A (top players) to C (beginners).
Ellicott City resident Les Hankins, a racquetball player for more than 20 years, is one of several volunteers who pair players and keep track of wins and losses. While the competition may be spirited, "these leagues are social," Hankins said. "We usually run right up to 8:30 and then go out and eat pizza."
Eric Robinson, a 20-year player who lives in Long Reach village, works with beginners in the "C" league, passing on fundamentals he has learned while attending racquetball clinics and camps. He also runs a late-afternoon league for junior players ranging in age from 8 to 16. And he conducts a racquetball clinic once a month at the Columbia Athletic Club for older adults who want to start exercising again.
Though all the leagues at Supreme Sports Club are co-ed, male racquetball players outnumber their female counterparts by a wide margin. But Becca Polignone, for one, doesn't feel intimidated.
"It's been good playing men," said Polignone, who lives in Elkridge and has won enough matches to earn promotion from Robinson's "C" League to the "C-plus, B-minus" league that Hankins supervises. "They hit the ball harder, so it's improved my reflexes and helped my game."
While courts at both clubs may be busy weeknights and Saturday and Sunday mornings, they do stand idle much of the day.
"The courts are only getting utilized about 20 percent of the time," said Rob Goldman, who heads the Columbia Association's sport and fitness division. Although the association has converted some courts to other uses, Goldman says racquetball players need not worry about space.
"I think at the Athletic Club the mix is where it's going to stay for a long, long time with five courts," he said. "At the Supreme Sports Club, over the next three to six years, you may see [alternative uses] for a few more courts. But in the next couple of decades, I see a nice handful of courts to accommodate the people who are enthusiastic about the sport."