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Off the court, but in the game

Winnipeg's Jen Saunders, Canada's racquetball ironwoman, hangs it up as reigning national champ – her 24th national title

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/12/2019 (299 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For Jen Saunders, the sport of racquetball has been a lifestyle choice.

She started in the game as a 10-year-old growing up in Thompson and for most of her adult life she has trained, competed and lived the game at the highest levels.

THE JEN SAUNDERS FILE

Jen Saunders retired from competitive racquetball earlier this week as the reigning Canadian women's champion.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jen Saunders retired from competitive racquetball earlier this week as the reigning Canadian women's champion.

Age: 43

Birthplace: Thompson

Hometown: Winnipeg

Honours: 2009 Manitoba female athlete of the year (also nominated for the award in 2005, '07, '10, '14)

World championships: singles silver in 2002, '12; singles bronze in 2006, '08; women's team bronze in 2004, '08, '12; women's team silver in 2006, '10; doubles bronze in 2004, '16

Age: 43

Birthplace: Thompson

Hometown: Winnipeg

Honours: 2009 Manitoba female athlete of the year (also nominated for the award in 2005, '07, '10, '14)

World championships: singles silver in 2002, '12; singles bronze in 2006, '08; women's team bronze in 2004, '08, '12; women's team silver in 2006, '10; doubles bronze in 2004, '16

Canadian championships: singles gold in 2002, '05, '09, '10, '11, '12, '13, '14, '16, '18, '19; singles silver in 2001, '03, '04, '06, '07, '08, '15, '17; women's doubles gold in 2003, '04, '05, '06, '07, '09, '11, '12, '13, '14, '15, 18, '19; women's doubles silver in 2008, '10, '16, '17; women's doubles bronze in 2002

Pan Am championships: singles silver in 2010; singles bronze in 2008; doubles silver in 2004; doubles bronze 2012, '16, '19

Pan Am Games: women's team bronze in 2015.

It's funny then, how Saunders, who retired from competition earlier this week as the reigning national women's champion and winner of a record 24 national titles, remembers her humble beginnings in the sport.

"I wasn't very good as a teenager playing racquetball," says Saunders, 43, who moved to Winnipeg as an 18 year old to attend university and has made it her home ever since. "I don't know if it was because I was in a small town or what clicked. Because I was a good enough athlete and we did travel to tournaments all over the place.

"When I was 14, I was left off the junior provincial team. I never won a junior national title and when I was 18, people laughed at me when I said I wanted to be on the national team."

Her reaction to the naysayers wasn't uncommon for an elite athlete.

"I say that my entire career was based on proving people wrong," she says. "I think maybe because there wasn't a ton of pressure on me as a teenager I was able to, first of all love racquetball and enjoy racquetball, and feel like I wanted to play for longer."

Ron Brown, who coached Saunders between 1999 and 2009, recalls seeing her at a junior event in the early 1990s and not being overly impressed.

"I thought this was probably not the sport for this girl," says Brown. "Years later, I reflected and thought what set her apart from her peers was just how mentally tough she was. You could not tell her she couldn't do something. That was the challenge — for her to show you that she could."

Saunders, third from right, as part of the Canadian bronze medal-winning team in women's racquetball at the Pan Am Games in Toronto in 2015.

REBECCA BLACKWELL / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE

Saunders, third from right, as part of the Canadian bronze medal-winning team in women's racquetball at the Pan Am Games in Toronto in 2015.

Saunders has called it quits on her competitive game as the oldest member of Team Canada; she had been a member, without interruption, since 2002.

When she graduated from the University of Winnipeg in 1999, Saunders took a job as a program co-ordinator with Racquetball Manitoba while still two years away from her first national title.

More recently, she's been Racquetball Manitoba's executive director and beginning in the new year, she will add the post of Racquetball Canada's administrator of high performance and sport development to her portfolio.

Saunders in 2001, was a member of the Canadian national racquetball team since 2002.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Saunders in 2001, was a member of the Canadian national racquetball team since 2002.

That appointment and a recently diagnosed torn labrum in her right hip, an injury that has plagued her for more than five years, helped to set the retirement plans in motion.

Before that, her Monday to Friday routine called for a 90- to 120-minute workout followed by one or two hours on the court. The mainly solo existence was right in her wheelhouse, as was her work schedule with Racquetball Manitoba, which was flexible enough to allow her to train and attend far-flung competitions.

"I enjoy the solitude," says Saunders. "I grew up playing boys' sports — hockey, baseball and lacrosse — on boys' teams against boys. I was too good for any of the girls sports in Thompson.

"Hindsight being 20-20, I think I migrated to racquetball because it was an individual sport and I didn't have to deal with boys, or puberty or going to a girls team where it wasn't competitive enough."

"My life was very much based on competing to make the national team and playing for Team Canada at international events. That's what my day-to-day life was about, working out and preparation for those tournaments (since 1997)." — Jen Saunders

Saunders may have been a late bloomer but she seemed to thrive in elite competition, getting her first taste of success at the 2001 nationals — "after not having any real result at a nationals, I made the final from the sixth seed" — months after starting to work with Jeff Wood, a Winnipeg-based strength-and-conditioning specialist.

Brown remembers international events beset by power failures or leaky roofs at the venues, causing panic for other competitors, but not Saunders.

"She's not your prototypical racquetball athlete, but probably the most resilient athlete I ever coached for sure," says Brown. "She was so resilient, nothing bothered her. Often the difference between winning and losing was how she controlled all of this chaos."

Saunders reached the women's singles final at world championship in 2002, losing narrowly to American legend Cheryl Gudinas, and didn't return to a worlds final again until 2012, losing to another giant of the sport — Mexico's Paola Longoria.

In between, she spent several seasons on the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour, rising to as high as seventh in world rankings.

"My life was very much based on competing to make the national team and playing for Team Canada at international events," she says. "That's what my day-to-day life was about, working out and preparation for those tournaments (since 1997)."

Getting older, frustration with the hip injury and a new job were good reasons to call it a career.

"I didn't really feel relevant on the international stage anymore and that was starting to get to me a little bit," says Saunders, who won six medals in nine trips to the worlds.

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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