Behind the Curls and Innocence Is the Killer in Women's Pro Racquetball
Sweet-faced Shannon Wright can say, convincingly, “I am a soft, gentle, loving person.” But try telling that to her racquetball opponents. They are accustomed to hearing savage pronouncements from her, like “My motto this year is, ‘Take no prisoners—nobody left alive on the court.’ ”
From the 5’5″, 130-pound Wright, that’s a promise, not a threat. At 23, she has been the top-ranked pro on the women’s racquetball circuit for the last four years. She doesn’t just beat her opponents; she frequently and unashamedly humiliates them by scores of 21-0. And even though she lost the national championship for the first time in three years this June, Wright’s total of tournaments won, points scored (they’re given according to tournament placing) and prize money puts her far ahead again in the 1979 rankings. Says Joe Ardito, commissioner of the sport: “Shannon’s No. 1 in all categories. She could skip a couple of tournaments and still keep the lead.” (Like squash, racquetball is played indoors, but it employs a bigger racket, a much faster ball and all four walls and the ceiling.)
Not the most graceful loser, Shannon tried to explain away her loss to 10th-ranked Karen Walton in the nationals. “I had not competed for two months. The heat was intense—115°,” she says, adding, “Every once in a while, someone will get hot against me, but not often.” Wright was also recovering from a serious ear infection; even then, the finals scores were 21-20 and 21-19. Three months earlier she had beaten Walton 21-4, 21-5.
The daughter of a wealthy Fort Worth lumber company owner, Shannon was a tomboy who played softball, basketball and soccer with her younger brother and sister. She found life difficult at the ritzy private school she attended. “The other kids rejected me because we weren’t from the right neighborhood, so I decided if they didn’t like me for who I was, I’d be better than they were,” she says. “I’d make better grades and play better sports.” At 14, Shannon won a city-wide tennis tournament; three years later she graduated from high school with honors.
As a sophomore she had started to play racquetball and after only two weeks on the court announced she wanted to “be the best player there was,” even though she knocked out a front tooth the second time she played. While practicing one day, she met a 24-year-old pro from Florida named Pete Wright, and two and a half years later, when Shannon was still 17 and a high school senior, they were married. In four years she never won a match against him. “I’ll bet I’ve been beaten 21-0 more than anyone else playing today,” she jokes. But in 1975 she won her first tournament, a pro-am in Denver, and nine months later Shannon was the national women’s pro champ.
One casualty of her success has been her marriage. On New Year’s Day 1977, she and Pete split up and Shannon moved to San Diego, the nation’s racquetball capital, where she won her second national championship. She also met Jim Lewis, now 39, who had just left his successful trucking business in South Dakota and “told my wife I was leaving for San Diego to play racquetball for a while.” He met Wright his first day in town; they’re now both divorced and Shannon calls him her “coach, manager and live-in. I owe him a lot.” They share a comfortable suburban house in Las Vegas, and Shannon is building a cozy log cabin in the mountains nearby, “where there are no courts.”
While the pro tour’s top purse is still only $4,500, Wright does have an endorsement deal with Wilson Sporting Goods. (In rackets, she advises, “Anything over $30 is a ripoff”; the Shannon Wright model goes for around $25.)
Wright knows that many other women pros don’t like her arrogance. Fifth-ranked Jennifer Harding, for instance, calls her “a conceited brat.” It’s not surprising, since Shannon has been known to whack balls at opponents on the court when she loses a point. “I was just growing up,” she says of those ill-mannered, racket-smashing days of several years ago. “I was kind of creepy, the way all kids are creepy.” Now, she insists, she’s different, though she’s still no model of humility. “I have enough talent,” she says. “If I’m living my life correctly, I ought to win.”