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Racquetball drama spills off the court: ‘I not only lost a club, I lost friends’

Bernie Friedman pictured outside The Valley Athletic Club in Tumwater this week. Friedman says he is being shut out of playing in the senior games because they are happening at The Valley. (Steve Bloom / Olympian)
Bernie Friedman pictured outside The Valley Athletic Club in Tumwater this week. Friedman says he is being shut out of playing in the senior games because they are happening at The Valley. (Steve Bloom / Olympian)

As Bernie Friedman tells it, he was only trying to help.

Friedman, an avid racquetball player, was a member of The Valley Athletic Club in Tumwater for 35 years before his membership was revoked. He said it was because over the years he suggested more than a few ways to improve the club.

“I’m from Brooklyn, New York. Sometimes I have a Brooklyn tongue, and sometimes I get passionate about little things,” Friedman, 69, said. “I’m not argumentative, I’m just passionate.”

That was four years ago. Friedman is now a member at LA Fitness in Lacey. The membership fees there are cheaper, and he’s got a new group of racquetball players to play with. He was happy there – until it was announced that this year’s Washington State Senior Games racquetball tournament would be held at The Valley.

Each year, about 2,000 athletes age 50 and older compete in 24 sports at events held across the South Sound. This year’s games kicked off late last month with softball; there are also track and field events, swimming, volleyball, pickleball and more.

The racquetball tournament will be July 21 at The Valley, where Friedman is not welcome.

“Any event, anything whatsoever, he would not be allowed in,” said Dan Sandy, the club’s owner. “If they want to move the senior games, they’re welcome to move it.”

(Sandy declined to say why exactly Friedman’s membership was revoked, just that “he wasn’t a good fit.”)

This would have been Friedman’s first time playing in the senior games. In other years he was traveling, or dealing with health problems. Since he is not allowed at The Valley, his partner has found another partner, and Friedman can’t even go cheer them on.

“Turning people away, it’s not right,” he said.

The Valley is a sprawling facility with about 13,000 members. There are tennis courts, basketball courts, squash and racquetball courts, indoor and outdoor pools, four separate weight and cardio rooms, according to its website, along with a cafe, spa and on-site physical therapists, even dry cleaning drop-off and pickup.

Back when he was a member, Friedman went to The Valley three or four times a week, mostly to play racquetball. Over the years he suggested to management they put up nets at the end of the courts to keep balls from flying into other parts of the gym. He suggested they add anti-slip floors in the locker rooms, that they get a second defibrillator for such a large facility, that they stock the beverage counter with lemon wedges.

But his biggest complaint, according to Friedman, was about the availability of racquetball courts. A few times a year, he said, The Valley would reserve all the courts for a clinic or tournament or staff event; one time they were closed three times in a month. Members pay more to access the courts, and Friedman thought they should leave one court open.

So he brought the issue to Sandy. A week later, Friedman said, his membership revoked. Friedman said he begged Sandy to let him stay.

“He said, ‘No Bernie, you’re not welcome here anymore.’ I cried that day. I not only lost a club, I lost friends,” Friedman said.

Sandy told The Olympian the racquetball courts are hardly in high demand – maybe 25 years ago, but not anymore. The Valley has gone from 10 courts down to four, which are rarely used.

“It’s a dying sport,” he said.

For its part, the senior games said it follows policies set by the venues hosting its events. And The Valley is one of the few venues that doesn’t charged the senior games to hold events there, said Jack Kiley, president of the Washington State Senior Games board of directors.

“Their policy is that they don’t want this person to participate,” Kiley said.


 

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