Erin Slutzky entered what she thought was just another racquetball tournament.
The summer prior to her junior year, Slutzky set out for Des Moines, Iowa to play some challenging games in a fun tournament. She and Parkway West teammate Elyse Duffie brought with them a portable speaker and a carefree attitude as they grooved to tunes during warm-ups.
They drew quizzical looks from the other competitors.
“I just thought it was a normal tournament. No one told me it was a qualifying tournament for Team USA,” Slutzky said.
Entering the 16-and-under Junior Nationals Tournament as an unknown, Slutzky won her first three matches against some of the best players in the country. Two matches went to pressure-packed, final-game tiebreakers, including a shocking defeat of Heather Mahoney of California, a two-time champion of the event.
Slutzky advanced to the title match and her father broke the news.
“When I got to the finals, my dad told me I was on Team USA. I had no idea what that meant,” Slutzky said.
For Slutzky, a senior at Parkway West, it has meant the world — literally. Since that day, she has embarked on a 21-month adventure with stops at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, the World Championships in Mexico, and on a medal podium in Costa Rica wrapped in an American flag.
Racquetball is a winter club sport in Missouri that runs from November to late February. Slutzky finished her senior season on March 1, securing a third-place finish at the High School Racquetball National Championships in Portland, Oregon. When she arrived home, she knew it was time to take a breath and reflect on where she has been.
“The day I told my mom I needed a break from hitting on the court, my gym called to tell us they were closed (due to the coronavirus pandemic),” Slutzky said.
It is a much-deserved break since she has not put down her racquet much over the last decade.
Her first memories of the sport involved being dropped off in the daycare area of a gym while her father Steve and older brother Ethan played racquetball. At age 8, she started joining them on the court.
“She was always very talented at playing the game, but there are not many sports where you and another person are locked in a room battling each other with people sitting above watching you.” Erin’s father Steve Slutzky said. “It’s a pretty high-pressure thing, and over time, she has worked to deal with high-pressure situations.”
She won individual state championships all four years at Parkway West, including the last two in the No. 1 bracket, reserved for the top players in the state. But it was her accidental arrival at Junior Nationals that changed her trajectory.
According to Dan Whitley, President of the Board of Directors for USA Racquetball, Slutzky became the first player from Missouri in more than 20 years to qualify for the United States National Team.
“That was remarkable. It was so neat to see someone break through and make the team from Missouri. She took all the things she needed to work on, worked on them collectively and broke through," said Whitley, who also serves as Executive Director of the Missouri High School Racquetball Association.
That breakthrough was not complete until Slutzky truly believed she belonged among the top players in the world.
“Her commitment to racquetball jumped way up, but she was still nervous and had her doubts as to whether she should be there,” Steve Slutzky said.
After training with the USA National Team in Colorado, she immersed herself in strength and speed training, practiced six days a week and began a vegan diet as she embodied the habits of a world-class athlete.
“Before junior nationals, I was winning state and a really good player for the high school league that’s here (in St. Louis),” Slutzky said. “But I never realized that people my age could be as good as the people I was playing at junior nationals and worlds, so seeing that level of play just motivated me.”
She traveled to San Luis Potosi, Mexico for the World Championships with the United States team, which now included her friend and Parkway West teammate Duffie, who was added to the roster after a spot opened up.
Neither player medaled individually, but the United States team took third overall, and Slutzky and Duffie joined their teammates on the podium with an American flag draped around their bodies and a medal around their necks.
Slutzky again qualified for the United States National Team following her junior year and competed in the World Championships in Costa Rica. The USA team again took third overall and Slutzky combined with doubles partner Nikita Chauhan to win bronze.
“What she has bundled together over the years — on-court discipline, strength, footwork and mental toughness — she’s just grown as a player in all facets,” Whitley said.
This fall, Slutzky will be attending Arizona State University and joining its racquetball team. Arizona is the home of several national racquetball events and a professional tour stop in October. Slutzky plans to enter.
Not yet an Olympic sport, racquetball has been a part of the Pan-Am Games and U.S. Olympic Festival, and Slutzky has hope that it may be an event in the Olympic Games as soon as 2028.
But one of her most enduring achievements may be the effect her success on a national level is having on the local high school racquetball scene.
Even after traveling the world and showcasing her skills, Slutzky is still trying to bring some awareness to racquetball, a sport not sanctioned by the Missouri High School Activities Association, in a region filled with untapped potential.
“A lot of people saw that I went to junior nationals, and I know a few people (from St. Louis) who were going this year before it got canceled,” Slutzky said. “We have a really good program here (in St. Louis) but we need people attending these (national) tournaments and keeping the sport alive. Even if you don’t make the (USA) team, there are so many cool people to meet.”
And for now, Slutzky will appreciate the much-needed rest while completing her Advanced Placement and Honors coursework, watching Netflix and reconnecting with the people she has met along her 21-month journey.
“We’re all video chatting. I’ve been talking with my friends from Bolivia a lot,” she said.