PETALUMA - Ava Naworski smiles about as often as she breathes. Heather Mahoney looks as threatening as a marshmallow. The two of them, if they were to represent the weather, would be judged as sunny with no rain in sight. They never get hot and steamy. They are a day at the beach.
They are world champions … but where … exactly? To win especially at their level, is to strut, preen, pound your chest like King Kong. To be successful in sport you need attitude. Shout so loud they can hear you on the moon.
“No one likes a sore winner,” said Naworski, 11.
“It (bragging) annoys people,” said Mahoney, 13.
Of course the temptations are there to wilt their sportsmanship and send it packing. Nien days ago in Minneapolis at the Junior World Racquetball Championships both Petaluma residents won the right — or is it excuse? — to shower themselves with ego.
Naworski, a sixth grader at Corona Creek Elementary School, won the gold medal in girls 10-and-under doubles, teaming up with another Californian, Sonya Shetty.
Mahoney, an eighth-grader at Kenilworth Junior High School, won the gold medal in the girls 12-and-under singles. Mahoney has won 13 U.S. national titles.
Based on their accomplishments both girls are members of Team USA Racquetball. Based on their accomplishments they would be excused if they were to wear their gold medals around school and sign autographs at lunch.
Ah, but then they would have to answer to their parents. Matt, Ava’s dad, keeps it simple and … profound.
“I just want her to be a happy person,” he said. “I want her to enjoy the process, embrace the process. I want her to value the process, that winning doesn’t dictate whether it was success. If she plays hard, tries her best, that’s a win for me.”
Matt and Melodese, Heather’s mom, believe in the approach that seems so old-school, so ancient, so much in conflict to what captures a YouTube video these days — driven parents who drive their kids into therapy.
Such is the story that Ava and Heather, their parents and their coach, Brian Dixon once witnessed. A father was so upset at his son not playing well he called timeout, came on the court and ordered his miscreant to do wind sprints as punishment. In the middle of a match.
Melodese told the story of a soccer father who told his son he would take him to McDonald’s if he would score a goal. Her nose scrunched up when she told the story.
It was really scrunched up when I asked her the following question.
“What would you do if Heather threw her racket in anger in a match?”
For a moment Mom stared at the ceiling of the coffee shop. Then she lowered her gaze and then raised her voice.
“I’d be horrified,” she said.
Frankly, these two girls are what we like to think of Sonoma County kids: driven but in control, passionate but never so much as to lose compassion, proud to achieve but never to excess, smart of strategy but even more aware of life outside of a game.
In Minneapolis, Naworski was asked if she could have lunch with anyone, who would it be? She answered former First Lady Michelle Obama. She elaborated at the coffee shop.
“She’s such a strong, independent woman,” Naworski said. “She’s so powerful. She’s so special to so many people.”
Mahoney’s luncheon partner has provided her with another example of a strong, assertive female.
“Mia Hamm wrote a book I read when I was around 5,” Mahoney said of the retired soccer superstar. “She talked about not giving up when things don’t go your way. It really stuck with me.”
Mahoney didn’t need as much internal resolve in winning the gold. She won eight of nine games and continued to ascend in the eyes of Team USA as a player to be watched closely in the future.
If Mahoney does make the climb to the sport’s stratosphere — she’s the U.S. national champion in every age bracket thus far — she would prefer Dixon to be her coach along the way.
“I wouldn’t have made it this far without him,” Naworski said. This is Dixon’s 45th year in the sport, the past 20 as a coach. He’s California’s director of junior racquetball. His involvement with his players is reflective in the 31 silent visualizations he has his troops memorize.
“I take a deep breath before each serve … I hit each shot with control and power … I always play on my toes … I choose shots based on my opponents weaknesses and strengths … I pass when an opponent is in front of me … I choose the Shot that makes my opponent move the farthest … ”
Dixon mentions good sportsmanship but that’s more a redundancy. Naworski demonstrates it even to the point it may affect the outcome of her match.
“If there’s someone right in front of her,” Dixon said, “Ava might pull up a little bit and push it to the side.”
Meaning, Naworski would be entirely within her rights to smack it as needed and, if the ball hit the opponent, oh well. The opponent might think of moving a little next time. Ah, at the risk of sounding like the chamber of commerce, Ava Naworski is a Sonoma County kid.
So yes, it is true. Some people you meet, they act like there’s always a stone in their shoe. Walking pain, as it were. And then there’s Heather and Ava. Walking sunshine. If at the end of a match their opponent feels a little pain, they needn’t worry it’ll get worse. These girls leave their rackets on the court, along with their ego. To do otherwise would be … so … rude.
To comment on Bob Padecky’s column email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.