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Colorado’s Erika Manilla is the No. 1 women’s racquetball player in the U.S., but she won’t be satisfied until she’s No. 1 in the world

Erika Manilla was a gifted racquetball player from a young age, but after graduating from Northern Arizona, she had a decision to make: Pursue a career in biomedical science, or attempt to become a professional athlete in a niche sport with no secure financial future.

She chose the leap of faith, and has been skyrocketing in the sport ever since.

The No. 1-ranked U.S. women’s racquetball player for the past two years, the Regis Jesuit graduate and LoDo resident has emerged as a force on the international scene as well as the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour.

“My brother (Adam Manilla) had gone pro at that point, and he founded a coaching company that could make it work to where we could play full-time,” Erika Manilla said. “That’s when I had to make a decision where I was either going to pursue my career with my degree where I was financially stable and had a guaranteed direction, or move back home, live at poverty level, help build a coaching company and give my dream a shot.”

Manilla’s gamble paid off.

Her and her brother’s company, Manilla Athletics, has taken off. It’s an online coaching company not unlike Peloton, but for racquetball. It’s allowed the Manillas to be full-time athletes without having to worry about a typical 9-to-5 job, as the vast majority of pro American players do, especially on the women’s side.

With their company thriving, Erika has continued her ascent on the court that began at the age of six. It started with 22 junior nationals titles. Then a spot on Team USA, with six titles there. And last fall, Erika and Adam won the gold medal in mixed doubles at the Pan American Games in Chile, where Erika also took home a bronze in doubles.

The siblings won’t be satisfied until they’re both No. 1 in the world. Erika, 26, is currently No. 7 on the LPRT, having risen as high as No. 3 last year, while Adam, 28, is No. 7 on the International Racquetball Tour.

“Both of us have never done this to be top three, or just near the top,” said Adam, also a Regis Jesuit alum who now lives in San Jose. “Erika’s special in a way where throughout our careers, she’s been the one who’s reached the better achievements. She’s definitely more of a stud on the court. I have true ambitions to be No. 1, but the way she works, her mentality, her game, she has the complete makeup to do it.

“Our goal is to be No. 1 at one time, and it’d be even cooler if we were both No. 1 at the same time.”

At 5-foot-9, Erika is unusually tall for a female racquetball player. Her height gives her power: She is the hardest female hitter in the world, with her ballspeed clocked as high as 132 miles per hour last summer. And she’s a passionate player, unafraid to yell and pump her fist after a clutch shot.

Those attributes, in addition to her overall athleticism, give Manilla an edge in a sport dominated by Latin American players. In countries like Argentina, Bolivia and Mexico, racquetball is exceedingly popular and ranks among those nations’ favorite sports behind soccer. In those countries, it isn’t uncommon for top players to receive government funding via salaries, paid travel and facilities, as well as premier sponsorships.

In the U.S., the sponsorship opportunities for American players are limited. Athletes largely have to fend for themselves to make their pro careers work. All of that makes Erika’s feats all the more impressive.

“She’s an incredible role model to all the up-and-coming juniors, and they gravitate to her, the boys and the girls,” explained Erika’s doubles partner, Michelle Key. “But the girls really idolize her. And other women on tour really respect her, because the fact she can make this a bonafide, standalone career is huge.

“She and her brother are very business-savvy and they put in a lot of hard work with their business and behind the scenes that people don’t see. … She’s one of the best at supporting people in racquetball, and being a genuine person who wants people of all skill levels to learn and grow in this sport.”

The popularity of racquetball, once America’s fastest-growing sport in the 1970s, has taken a dive. Court access is a primary issue. Many of the small businesses that had courts were bankrupted by the pandemic, and the larger gym chains that have traditionally had courts made a habit of converting them for other uses.

So there is an access barrier, and a financial one as well, as there are usually membership requirements to use courts at the facilities that still have them such as Erika’s home gym, the Denver Athletic Club.

But amid the explosive growth of pickleball, the Manillas are at the forefront of the attempts to revive racquetball’s participation numbers, especially on the junior scene where the siblings first emerged as stars.

“Hands down, they’re doing the most for the sport out of anybody in the world,” Key said.

They built their own junior programs through Manilla Athletics, and after succeeding in the private sphere, received a grant from USA Racquetball to help others construct junior programs nationwide. They are also putting on a junior camp at the Olympic Training Center in April, and are contracted to run the junior nationals championship tournament in California in June.

“One of our main goals is to bring back the experience we had as juniors to the new kiddos and the next generation, along with regrowing our sport,” Erika Manilla said. “In our sport, we believe you can’t just be a pro athlete. We have to build the sport at the same time as competing, and we still believe and prove every day that racquetball will have another rise.”

In the meantime, Manilla is recovering from right hip surgery she underwent this week to repair a torn labrum. That will put her out for about six months, causing her ranking to dip.

But she believes she’ll come back better than ever and ready to make a run at an LPRT title as well as a gold medal in singles at the 2027 Pan American Games in Peru. She already has a victory over the sport’s most dominant player, Mexico’s Paola Longoria, on her resume.

According to Jo Shattuck, a former pro who coached Erika as a kid, Erika’s first two years as a pro are merely a preview.

“Competitively, she’s already there among the best in the world,” Shattuck said. “Paola is the most decorated female racquetball player in history, and Erika’s beaten her. But Erika’s been on the tour for just two years, and Paola has been on tour for (nearly two decades).

“There’s a new generation of players coming through, and Erika is right there with them, and she has a high potential for growth. I predict she’ll be among the top four players in the world within the next couple years, and one or two of them is going to be above the rest, and it’s mostly mental at this point. But there’s nothing that can stop her from being No. 1.”

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