Wes Miller is a national racquetball champion again, nearly three decades after first bringing home the gold as a boy in Johnson City.
Now a Florida resident, Miller won the Men’s 35 singles championship at the U.S. Open in Minneapolis last weekend. And he just missed a rare double, finishing runner-up in the Men’s 30 division.
The tournament at the Target Center provided an exhilarating comeback for the 35-year-old Miller, who has spent most of his adult life swinging golf clubs instead of racquets.
“I kind of got back into racquetball about a year or so ago, just to be in shape,” he said from his home in Bradenton, Fla. “I didn’t know the level of success I’d have in tournaments, or how far I’d want to go with it. It was just a neat experience to go back to the sport I loved growing up.”
Miller’s father, Steve, still owns and operates the Johnson City Racquetball Club. He chuckles when he thinks back to those early days in the business.
Wesley was just a toddler when the club on Springbrook Drive opened. At age three, he had broken his leg and was in a full body cast. His dad would prop him up on one of the racquetball courts and give him a racquet to entertain himself.
“People would come around and say, Poor thing,” Steve Miller recalled last week. “We’d just lay Wes down on the floor and he’d hit the ball back to us over and over. He loved to do that.”
Wesley recovered, of course, and became a fixture at the door of the club, lying in wait for unsuspecting opponents several times his age.
“He’d stand there with his eyeguards and say, ‘Will you play with me?’ said Miller. “He was a good player by the time he was six. People were saying we needed to get him somewhere to play, but I was afraid he’d get stepped on.”
Those fears soon passed.
Wesley won the junior nationals three times — at age 8, 10 and 12 — and began working toward the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. Unfortunately, racquetball was eliminated from the Games, and Wesley’s sports focus moved in another direction.
“I kind of decided to switch resources to golf,” he said. “I got college paid for; I played at Carson-Newman. I got to the AA level of pro golf, the Hooters Tour, and then got into the golf business.”
He didn’t return to his old love until last year. Turns out he still has the stuff it takes to win national championships.
Miller lives in Bradenton with his wife Meredith, a dermatologist he met while attending Carson-Newman. He’s now the general manager of River Strand Golf & Country Club, after serving a decade as head pro at the 27-hole Arthur Hills layout on the Manatee River.
About a year ago, he started reassessing his racquetball skills in tournaments around the area, and liked the results. He won the Florida state championship in January, and then a couple of open tournaments in recent months.
He started thinking big again.
“Having my background, I certainly knew the game, strategy and shots,” he said. “It took awhile to physically get back to where I could perform at a high level. It particularly helped elevate my game to have a lot of high-level players in the Sarasota/Bradenton/Tampa area.
“I started winning some tournaments, and the last couple of months I had been training hard, looking to play in the U.S. Open. It’s the largest racquetball tournament in the world — over 700 players this year, I think. And close to half of the participants were from other countries. The sport has really had good growth over the last 20 years.”
What has set Miller apart from a lot of other players when it comes to pounding those rubber balls off the walls? His father says strategy.
“Like anything else, you have to have confidence in your own abilities,” said Steve Miller. “A lot of people have superior athletic skills but don’t have the head to go with it. Wes is a good athlete, but he’s really smart on a racquetball court. He knows what he can do, and he’s quick to figure out what his opponent can and can’t do. He’s very good at that.”
Wesley considers the game a blessing, and his roots are still planted firmly in the relationships he forged through JCRC.
“My dad was always the best player at the club, and uncle Wayne was right there with him,” he said. “There were really lots of great players there — Rick Bearfield, Jane Snyder, Steve Fox — and as a kid that’s what I was about. My dad was a single parent, I’d come home and go to the racquetball club.
“I guess I was kind of annoying to people at times, and dad said I couldn’t keep going up and asking them to play. It became the rule that they had to ask me to play, and a lot of them did. It was just a unique atmosphere to grow up in. I learned a lot of life skills; a lot of people there had a huge influence on me.”
Even though he’s lived in Florida for years, Miller says he’s never very far away emotionally.
“I really appreciate the support of everybody at the club. Always have,” he said. “I miss that environment. The business I run now, I’m always trying to create that family atmosphere where people have a personal attachment. That’s something that stays with you.”