Nick Birnel is a little brother who has been inspired by his biggest brother to have outsized racquetball dreams for an 11-year-old.
Nick is not small for his age -- at 5-foot-1 and 120 pounds, the fifth-grader at Ten Mile Creek Elementary School is quite an athlete already. Like older brothers Jake Birnel, 15, and Jordan Birnel, 13, Nick is an avid year-round soccer player.
But Nick is just as enthusiastic about racquetball, and he has the USA Racquetball Junior National Team membership, for the Esprit U12 Division, to prove it.
After winning three national medals including a pair of doubles titles in June, he's headed for world competition in his age group Nov. 11-17 in Canoga Park, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles.
"I'm going for the gold," he said with his infectious grin.
Nick, a four-time Washington state age-group champion, is coached by Bellingham's Wanda Collins, who holds multiple national adult women's titles, at the Bellingham Athletic Club.
Collins -- "She's just the best," said Nick -- also coaches Jake, who was a national singles champion for his age group at 10. Jake is now a 15-year-old Meridian High sophomore who started on the varsity soccer team as a freshman.
"He's very good," Nick said of Jake, while explaining how his oldest brother has helped him grow in racquetball, since Nick was a toddler when Jake first picked up a racquet in earnest. "He's a really good brother, and he has helped coach me."
Like Jake was at 10, Nick -- the only Washington state resident on the Junior National Team -- is already good enough to beat many adults on the racquetball court.
"But I can't beat Jake," said Nick, whose parents are longtime racquetball players Don and Rowena Birnel of Bellingham. "He's just too good."
And what, Nick was asked, will he do if he and Jake -- both of whom want to continue playing racquetball -- meet in high-level competition when they're grown up?
"I would totally want to win," said Nick.
Last June in Fullerton, Calif., Nick teamed with his best racquetball buddy, Antonio Rojas of Stockton, Calif., to win the boys' doubles title for their age group. Nick also won the mixed doubles title with Florida player Graciana Wargo.
Nick, whose two doubles golds were in his first in four years of national youth competition, wasn't nearly as happy with his fourth-place singles finish. But he says he learned a valuable lesson.
"I drank four energy drinks," Nick said. "That messed me up. From now on, I'm sticking to Gatorade and water."
Nick, a top-four player at nationals for four consecutive years, will compete at the worlds with other players who were no older than 10 as of Jan. 1, 2012. He turned 11 on Saturday, Nov. 3.
Even though he was born into a racquetball-loving family, "Nobody forced me to start playing the game," Nick said. "It was in third grade when I realized how much I really loved racquetball."
Jake recently helped win the annual Canadian-American challenges matches along with another teen player, Holly Scott of Bellingham. Nick also contributed, finishing third while playing up in the U12 division.
"It was really awesome," Nick said. "I was watching every singles match and cheering for Jake."
The boys' mother, who was Rowena Oliver as a member of Sehome's Class of 1982, met husband Don Oliver while both were University of Washington students. Don, already a racquetball enthusiast, taught Rowena the game at UW.
Nick, whose favorite subject in school is math, is far from one-dimensional. In addition to his goal of playing soccer for Meridian, he also loves to learn about the ukulele and can sing well.
Right now, though, he's all about making the most noise on the racquetball court.