Longtime Bellingham Athletic Club racquetball player provides memorable, inspiring moment

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 12, 2014 

Longtime Bellingham Athletic Club racquetball player Sharon Chandler competes during a National Senior Women's Racquetball Championship in Chattanooga, Ten., in 1997. Chandler competed in 11 senior women's championships all over the country

JOANN JOHNSON — Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

There are those in life who are dealt a striking blow of hard luck and wallow in their sorrows and then there are people such as 67-year-old Sharon Chandler - a fighter who doesn't let a life-altering diagnosis affect her spirit or what she loves.

It's a cool, comfortable Friday, April 11, evening at Cornwall Park in Bellingham and Joann Johnson is slowly walking with Chandler, her friend and racquetball companion of nearly 40 years.

The park's Frisbee golf course is especially popular on Friday nights among the 18-to-30-year-old crowd, and Chandler methodically inches along the grounds, morphine pump in hand. Johnson knows Chandler was just ordered to double her dose of morphine intake and that her Stage 4 lung cancer has left her with only weeks to live at best.

"I can't believe I move like this," Johnson said Chandler told her.

But even the grim outlook facing Chandler didn't stop her from making light of a difficult situation.

"I was taking Sharon through the park and she stopped a group of guys there," Johnson said. "She says, 'You guys, I got a joke to tell you.' I'm sitting there while she has this morphine pump and is shaky, and she is telling these guys a joke, and I'm like, 'Really?' She thoroughly enjoys watching people smile and laugh. She tells a joke, and that's her."

Chandler and Johnson's friendship dates back to 1977 when the Bellingham Athletic Club was built, and their friendship was sparked when they decided to share a locker together. They've shared that same locker for 35 years.

Chandler worked as a registered nurse, but make no mistake, her athletic passion was racquetball. She lived it and seemingly never could get enough, traveling all over the country with Anderson and others competing in national tournaments.

Wanda Collins, Bellingham Athletic Club's Racquetball Pro who also met Chandler in 1977, said she's played everywhere from Texas to Florida to San Francisco to Baltimore.

It was at those tournaments and local ones throughout the northwest, as well, that Chandler earned her sterling playing reputation of being a tough and fair competitor.

She became known for her gritty play up front and could put corner shots away with the best racquetball players out there.

"Playing with Sharon is always a pleasure," Collins said, "because she is always encouraging and encourages partners to play well. You could leave her up front, and she had a nice low-corner shot. In the back, you could always get a nice view of her playing. There's people you would like to avoid playing, and Sharon was never one of those."

As the years went on, Chandler's magnetic personality helped foster a true family atmosphere among players at the BAC, Collins and Johnson said.

Her massage ritual following BAC tournaments offers one of many examples.

"We have five tournaments a year at the club, and at the end of each tournament people would reserve a big table at some local Mexican restaurant," Collins explained. "It was about 30 people, and we'd all go eat Sunday after the three-day tournament. Sharon would go around the table and give everyone a shoulder massage for five minutes and everybody looked forward to it."

Chandler's play also improved as she progressed in the sport.

She reached the Women's Elite A Division, which is only one step down from Women's Pro, and she compiled many wins in the process.

Most recently, before she was diagnosed with cancer in July 2013, Chandler placed second at the BAC's annual Northwest Open in 2008 and was third in '09, '10, and '11 before taking second again in 2012. In 2011, she won a Washington state singles title at the Pro Club in Bellevue, took third in Washington state doubles at the WAC Athletic Club in Seattle and also placed third at the Seattle Open Pro Stop.

But as Chandler aged and grew sick from her cancer last summer, her skills diminished. She found a morning group at the BAC more suitable to her playing abilities and with her home Northwest Open Tournament coming up March 13-16, she enlisted the help of morning group playing partner Karin Hoekema for what would be her final time on a racquetball court.

Hoekema began playing racquetball at the BAC five or six years ago, she said, but she'd never entered a tournament due to her busy schedule.

When offered to play with Chandler at the Northwest Open, though, Hoekema brushed her busy life to the side. She couldn't say no.

"I was touched," Hoekema said. "I thought this was going to be her last one, her last big thing. I was honored she asked me, but my initial instinct was I can't make that commitment. Then I thought I want to do it, I want to make this work. I didn't have child care, so I carted my kids with me. I wanted to honor her request."

And Hoekema became a part of a touching, emotional moment those watching March 16 at the BAC will never soon forget.

Chandler began taking morphine right before the tournament started, and Hoekema said the effects were visible. She was tired, groggy and her mind seemed clouded, Hoekema said.

Chandler and Hoekema entered in the Women's Elite B/C Division and won the first two matches, setting themselves up for the finals.

Each day Chandler had a new group of friends and racquetball players she became close with over the years swing by and to see her play one last time.

"She was just worn out and getting sick between games and it was sad," said Hoekema of Chandler. "We ended of getting the court right in front, and a lot of people could watch. It was packed out there."

Chandler and Hoekema faced a talented team in the finals, and more than anything Hoekema wanted to help give Chandler a proper send-off with a tournament title.

"It was very hard and emotional for me," Hoekema said. "I wanted to win, and if we could pull it off I thought it would be neat for her to say we won."

Despite Chandler going to the bathroom during timeouts to vomit, her and Hoekema won the first of three games 15-9. But after they lost the second game 15-3, Hoekema said doubts began creeping into her mind.

The third game was played to 11, and Chandler and Hoekema were trailing 9-4 or 9-3, Hoekema recalled, before the pair made their move.

"She was able to hit her little dink shots - what she is kind of known for, great shots - and we somehow caught up," Hoekema said.

The duo trailed 10-9, and their opponents were serving for the win. Chandler and Hoekema twice prevented the win and then scored themselves to conclude what was a courageous and inspiring performance.

Collins, who was absent during the tournament for the first time in 30 years, was overcome with emotion when she heard the news.

"It's almost a storybook end for her career," Collins said. "It made me cry. They called me in California, and I started crying once I heard the story. No way anything could have been better for her. It was just perfect."

Chandler was so physically spent, Hoekema said she wasn't very expressive. She just remembers a whole lot of teary-eyed hugs.

Racquetball was Chandler's passion, and while she loved to play, it was the sport itself that allowed so many people to be blessed with Chandler's vibrant personality.

"Sharon is a person who has lived life with generosity and sprit," Johnson said. "She just cares about people, cares about the environment, cares about animals and is passionate about many things, and racquetball has been the sport that she has loved. All of those characteristics continued to be apart of her in the sport and those natural qualities of her have been illuminated on the court."

Reach Andrew Lang at andrew.lang@bellinghamherald.com or call 360-756-2862. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.

Reach ANDREW LANG at andrew.lang@bellinghamherald.com or call ext. 862.

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