Keeping young with racquetball: SHARP GUY, SHARPER RETURN

Jim Railey, who turns 80 today, hits a racquetball at the YMCA. ‘You have to get smarter and trickier as you get older,’ he says of the game.
Jim Railey, who turns 80 today, hits a racquetball at the YMCA. ‘You have to get smarter and trickier as you get older,’ he says of the game. The Tribune

The cracks and pops filling the San Luis Obispo YMCA are not Jim Railey’s joints — they are a racquetball slamming against a wall or ceiling by one of his power serves or swift backhands.

Today is Railey’s 80th birthday, though he acknowledges that he’s quick even for a 60-year-old.

“I am very fortunate. I play with two guys down here, who are just a few years younger than me, and I can beat them left-handed. They move slow,” Railey said with a slight Southern lilt.

Born in 1932 in Clay, Ky., Railey first played racquetball at age 39 in 1971, just as the sport was building in popularity. He went on to win five gold medals between the ages of 60 and 75 while competing in national and international racquetball masters-level tournaments. He and his wife, Betty Rose Railey, won second place together at the national masters mixed doubles tournament when they were both 60.

Over the years, age has changed Railey’s game, but increased his cunning.

“You have to get smarter and trickier as you get older,” said the white-haired Railey, who now finds long rallies tiring.

So he places himself deliberately in center of the 20-by-40-foot court with a low, wide-legged stance — still darting and running but playing offensively with mighty serves. He aims to end rallies quickly with strong, well-placed hits that crack as loudly as a whip.

“That’s a beautiful shot. No — there’s no returning that,” exclaimed an opponent decades his junior during a recent match attended by The Tribune.

Railey keeps himself competitive with athletic activity six days a week.

“He’s a nut on fitness. If he doesn’t get it one way, he gets it another,” said his wife.

He plays racquetball about three days a week, lifts weights two to three days a week, and since a knee replacement at the age of 70, he runs for 30 minutes two to three days a week at the deep end of a pool with a buoyant noodle wrapped around him to stay afloat.

Railey’s life has been filled with sports since he first made the high school varsity basketball team at Clay High School in Kentucky at the age of 13. Having skipped a grade in elementary school, he graduated at age 16.

After a Navy deployment from 1951 to 1955 during the Korean War, he went on to play three years for Murray State University as a baseball shortstop — developing hand-eye coordination that would later prove relevant to racquetball. He next coached baseball, admittedly his best sport, at Arizona State University; Utah State University; Indiana University; and Georgetown College, Ky., and other posts before spending 15 years at Cal Poly as a professor, department head of physical education and associate dean.

He still coaches Cal Poly’s coed racquetball team and teaches racquetball at the San Luis Obispo YMCA, where in 2010 the annual Jim Railey Classic racquetball tournament was created in his honor.

Despite it all, Railey is humble. He is grateful for his spryness and health, having beat a match with prostate cancer three years ago, when he played racquetball throughout radiation treatment.

Having grown up on a farm in Kentucky as the son of a country preacher, Railey said that more important than sports is his Christian faith: “It’s everything to me.”

But he has never prayed to win a game.

“I don’t pray to win. I pray to do my best and have no injuries. I don’t think God takes sides in games,” he said.

He will compete in March at The National Masters Racquetball Association tournament in Utah, against other men 80 and older.

Competition will be stiff. As Railey put it, the longer players stay in the game, the tougher they get.