RECREATION / RACQUETBALL : It’s Been a Match Made and Sustained on Court : Jim Carson has coached Lynn Adams to national championships. Their relationship has included marriage, divorce and a serious injury.


Beginning racquetball is as easy as falling in love. All you really need is a court, a racquet and a partner. And the ball, no matter how or where you whack it, almost always comes back to you--which means you’re generally better off waiting for it than chasing around after it.

Serious racquetball, on the other hand, is every bit as complex and rewarding as staying in love. It’s an infinitely challenging game of funny bounces and odd angles. Two local racquetball professionals, Lynn Adams of Costa Mesa and Jim Carson of Irvine, have played all the angles in an ongoing personal and professional relationship that dates back to 1977.

Adams, who recently moved to Chicago to set up house with her new husband, is the most dominant player in the history of women’s professional racquetball. She won WPRA National Championships in 1982, 1983 and 1985-88 inclusive. And, despite a chronic spinal problem that forced her and her coach to completely restructure her mental and physical approach to the game, Adams recently took the first step toward reclaiming her title. She won the opener of the 1991 women’s pro tour at Racquetball World in Santa Ana on Jan. 20.

Carson has made his living as a racquetball pro for most of his adult life. He has been Adams’ coach since a few weeks after the two met at an Orange Coast College outdoor racquetball tournament in 1977.


Carson, who was “totally into promoting, teaching and playing racquetball at the time,” says: “Although Lynn wasn’t a very good player, I could see right away that she was a fierce competitor and a great athlete.” Carson gave Adams his card and urged her to call him for free lessons.

“I think he just liked my legs,” recalls Adams, who nonetheless called Carson a few weeks later to arrange for lessons.

Adams’ leg theory proved correct. Lessons led to dating, which led to living together, which led to marriage, which led to separation, which led to divorce--all over a nine-year period. Through it all the astonishingly successful player/coach relationship remained intact and Adams quickly blasted her way to her perch atop racquetball’s professional pyramid.

“I work with four tournament pros and one of my goals with each of them is to encourage independence so they can play well when I’m not around,” Carson says. “Let’s just say that in Lynn’s case we successfully reached the goal of ‘independence’ both personally and professionally.”

“We can laugh about it now,” adds Adams, “but for a couple of years after we separated it was painful and awkward.”

Carson agrees but says their split was purposely well-timed from a racquetball perspective: “Lynn really didn’t need a coach between ’85 and ’87 because no one was even challenging her.”


In December of ‘87, however, Adams learned that she was facing the biggest challenge of her life, one that forced her to contemplate retirement. The sheath of tissue covering her spinal column disintegrated in one spot. This caused unpredictable bouts of numbness, weakness and loss of control of her limbs, much like the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Through painful trial and error she learned that she could play racquetball four times a week or she could stick with her demanding conditioning program, but she couldn’t do both. The bottom line was that she could no longer maintain peak conditioning nor could she rely on the power game that had propelled her to the top.

Re-enter Carson. Despite their split, Adams and Carson had continued their player/coach relationship on a limited basis. Once Adams resolved to battle her problems rather than retire, she naturally turned to Carson. “Jim knows me better than anyone,” says Adams, “and he knows more about racquetball than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Says Carson, “Lynn had to learn a whole new way to compete. I was more than happy to help out.”

Working together, the two found that mental imaging could replace physical conditioning as a preparation strategy and that finesse worked as well as power in actual competition. “That whole process brought us closer together,” Carson says. “She’ll always be my best friend.”

Adams agrees. “Our friendship has definitely endured the break-up of our marriage,” she says, “and our racquetball friendship, though different, is better than ever.”


The upshot? Carson was part of the wedding party when Adams married Chicago businessman Rich Clay recently. Clay, an A level amateur racquetball player, totally supports Carson’s and Adams’ professional relationship. And Adams, who in 1990 was declared the WPRA’s Player of the Year (for the eighth time), is expected to reclaim her national championship this year.

The recent history of racquetball parallels Adams’ and Carson’s relationship. Racquetball was the sporting craze of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It started when burned-out survivors of the tennis-mad early ‘70s discovered the key advantage of racquetball: The sport offers quicker fun and better exercise with less investment of time, money and discipline. In romantic terms tennis compares to developing a relationship, while racquetball is more like hitting it off on the first date.

Despite a glut of new courts and programs, however, too many first dates turned into one-night stands. Through the mid-’80s, racquetball’s popularity crashed as the fickle hordes embraced mountain biking and golf.

But racquetball’s popularity has finally stabilized, according to Carson and American Amateur Racquetball Assn. President Luke St. Onge. It even shows some signs of new growth.

For the past three years, says St. Onge, about 10 million Americans a year have played racquetball at least once. Of those, about 2.5 million are first-timers and another 2.5 million play more than 25 days a year.

St. Onge says that is an encouraging mix, especially since the AARA is finally developing programs for children and teen-agers.


Carson says the new focus on youth is critical. “During the boom cycle we got so caught up in providing for adults that we absolutely failed to encourage young people to take up the sport. We didn’t create programs for them and we didn’t give them enough access to courts--and it cost us a whole generation of players.”

Nowadays, the AARA has programs ranging from an “unlimited bounce” youth league for players 8 years old and under to a masters program for players 45 and up. Carson, who is the resident pro for Orange County’s Racquetball World health club chain, is involved on all levels.

The AARA’s National Masters Tournament will be held at Racquetball World in Fullerton this month, and the Western Regional Singles Tournament (for all age groups) is slated for Racquetball World in Santa Ana in March.

Carson and St. Onge say recreational racquetball offers the following fitness benefits:

* It is a great sport for burning calories. Men’s Health magazine cited racquetball as one of the best ways to shrink a beer belly.

* An average player will run 1 to 3 miles in a three-game match.

* Despite racquetball’s stop/start nature, even semi-serious players can achieve a constant 75% to 85% of their maximum heart rate.

* Playing racquetball improves hand-eye coordination which, among other things, reduces susceptibility to motion sickness.


Adams is more tuned in to the sport’s psychological and social benefits--especially for women:

“I think racquetball is a great way for women to explore the competitive aspects of their personalities. My recent experience tells me that mental preparation and finesse work as well as physical conditioning and raw power in this game. Because of that, racquetball is one of the best ways around for a woman to experience one-on-one competition--the kind that produces a winner and a loser.”

“Plus,” Adams says, “you’ll notice that all racquetball players really do have great legs.”

For players who don’t belong to a health club, racquetball opportunities in Orange County include: lessons and classes at local colleges and recreation centers, including Saddleback College, Cal State Fullerton and the Fountain Valley Recreation Center; free play at numerous outdoor and indoor courts (Golden West College, Orange Coast College and Heritage Park in Irvine); and public “Pay In Play” courts listed in the Yellow Pages.