Bolivia is the world’s hotbed of racquetball. At the recent IRT/LPRT Grand Slam in Cochabamba, hundreds and hundreds of fans showed up for matches, many of whom were not players and bought tickets to watch. It was an incredible event. One of the players/coaches who has been at the forefront of making racquetball the sport it is in Bolivia is Felipe Mercado. We asked Felipe to share a little information about himself and his incredible passion for racquetball. In Felipe’s words:
I was born in Tarija City in 1982, and I started playing racquetball when I was 6 years old. Every night my family met with friends and their families to play at a local club. Being just a little kid, I was only able to play when the adults were resting between games. Even so, I enjoyed trying to hit the ball inside the court or even outside; I sometimes broke flowerpots, glasses, or anything that crossed my shots. Those were the happiest days of my childhood. I played racquetball and every sport that crossed my path: soccer, basketball, volleyball, table tennis, tennis, and fronton (Bolivian outdoor racquetball).
I started to compete when I was nine. I finished second in the U10 division in nationals before moving to Cochabamba City. When I moved, I continued playing a lot of other sports into my early twenties. However, things changed for me in 2001, when a Pan American Championships was held in Cochabamba. I went and watched the matches and could feel the excitement of the game. I literally watched every match, including many, many great players such as Kane Waselenchuk, Javier Moreno, Rocky Carson, Jack Huczek, Laura Fenton, Cheryl Gudinas, and Rhonda Rajsich. My experience is a great example of how seeing quality racquetball live and in person can change a life.
After that, and thanks to Coach Gonzalo Amaya who ran the team at Univalle College, I started to play again and practiced every day with friends. A few years later, I qualified for my first National Adult Team. I played doubles with Santiago Canedo in the Racquetball World Championships in Anyang, Korea. I qualified for the national team on a couple more occasions, but I could not represent my country because there was no financial support. I could not afford to pay for tickets and all the expenses involved. Since then, I have represented Bolivia in both 2007 and 2013, and am proud and honored to have earned medals for my country.
Around 2010 I started as a racquetball instructor in a small city called Tiquipaya near Cochabamba. Shortly after, I was hired for two years as an assistant instructor in a private club in Cochabamba, and we eventually formed a Rollout Team with some players, their parents, and Manuel Flores, another coach. Through this program, we developed young players such as Mario Mercado, Cristian Mina, Masiel Rivera, Diego Crespo, Ernesto Ruiz, Micaela Molina, Romina Rivero, Valeria Centellas, and Diego García. Some of these players you may not know (yet), but combined they have won many, many local, national, and international titles.
I was part of the National Coaching Staff in Bolivia in 2014 and in 2017. I also spent time working as a National Team Coach in Ecuador, and I learned a lot from that experience. Spending time at practice session and coaching the team through tough tournaments taught me a lot. It was an amazing experience to coach great players from Ecuador such as Fernando Rios, Paz Muñoz, Juan Flores, and many others.
Currently, I have the enormous pleasure and responsibility to be part of the National Coaching Staff of Bolivia again. I am working to represent Bolivia in major events such as the Pan Am Games in Lima this summer. I also continue to work with junior students in my Academy in Cochabamba with my fellow coach and assistant Gary Rosas. Together, we instruct and coach almost 60 players ranging from 5 to 16 years old. We receive the help of each player’s parents and families, and we are building a good basis of new players. We are excited about the future of racquetball in Bolivia.
In addition, for the past couple of years I have partnered with Coach Brayan García to instruct and coach Valeria Centellas and Diego García (Brayan’s younger brother). We enjoy our time on and off the court and we make a strong team. Diego is 18 years old and Valeria is 17, and both are current Junior World Champions in their age divisions. Both have recently received the help of the Reaching Your Dream Foundation, which has provided them with proper housing or a room in a hotel to attend recent professional tournaments. That help was very important to us because they do not receive much help from other sources in Bolivia.