Padecky: Petaluma’s Heather Mahoney has a gold medal and a bright future

Heather Mahoney, at 11 years old, won a racquetball world title at a tournament in the Dominican Republic.|

You see the face and you wouldn’t run and hide from Heather Mahoney. You see her face and you want to offer some ice cream. Her smile spreads easily from ear-to-ear. Her manner is aw-shucks. Her voice so polite and respectful, you lean forward to hear it. She is the girl next door, the babysitter you could trust. You would never, ever, guess what’s inside.

When Mahoney walks to the racquetball service area, she’s still all peaches and cream. She gets ready to serve. She pauses. She looks back at her opponent. Like a puff of smoke caught in a breeze, the girl-next-door disappears.

“Heather gives them what people at the club call ‘The Stink Eye,’ ” said her father, John, a mechanical engineer from Petaluma.

We’ve seen The Stink Eye before. Former Oakland A’s ace Dave Stewart had the stink eye. It was called The Stare back in the ’80s. The message sent was the same for both Stewart and Mahoney: I’m in charge. Deal with it.

It is a look forged from the fire of success. On Nov. 15 Mahoney became a world champion in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Mahoney beat Angela Veronica Ortega Sabido of Mexico to become the Junior World Champion in the 10-and-under girl’s competition. Now 11, Mahoney was 10 years old as of Jan. 1, the time of national and international registry.

How often does she think about her world title? Her answer would work well for anyone on the Golden State Warriors after they won the NBA Championship.

“Not when I’m sleeping” is about the only time Mahoney doesn’t think about representing Team USA Racquetball with the best possible result. How indeed could the experience pass quietly into the night? It wasn’t just that she won, to be called a world champion. It was that Mahoney won despite her left big toe looking a little bit like the restaurant sausage link you order at breakfast.

Yes, she blushed a bit in telling the story. For someone so coordinated, so quick to the ball, so savvy on what’s around her, that someone almost took herself out of a world tournament. It was a hotel elevator that almost took her out. Mahoney was assuming the elevator would open as all elevators do, the floor of the elevator settling at the same level as the hotel floor she was leaving.

Oops. And double oops because she was wearing open-toed rubber flip-flops, the kind of sandals that barely pass as sandals, where even a pebble feels like a boulder. John was with her at Santo Domingo’s Hotel Barceló. They were headed to the hotel to swim and chill.

“Hey, Dad, look,” she said without screaming. John didn’t expect much given the casualness of the entreaty. Until he looked down and he saw the blood and the toenail split at a right angle, a neat trick in and of itself. It was Nov. 12. She was to play her semifinal match the next day. He then looked up his daughter. That smiley face was, in his words, “ghost white.”

Without looking down Heather had jammed her left big toe against the raised elevator floor.

A father of one of the other American girls competing happened by. He was an emergency medical technician.

“She’s out of the tournament,” he said.

The shoulders of Heather and John sagged. The judgment certainly wasn’t a reach. Dad tried comforting daughter by emphasizing managing expectations. Jody Nance, USA’s medical person, washed the wound, applied steri-strips and told Mahoney to stay off her feet, elevating her left foot all day. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

“I was hoping my toe hadn’t broken off,” she said, some of it in jest.

Mahoney played the next day. And won. And she thought maybe it kinda hurt. When she removed her shoe the evidence was there that indeed it must have hurt - her sock was bloody. And two days later Mahoney won the gold and gosh, victory seemed to take away all the pain - and surprises.

A wooden plank on the court popped up in the middle of her semifinal match. That could have distracted her. No worries for someone with a ripe big toe. She’s seen adversity before. There was that pesky appendix which ruptured three weeks before the Junior Worlds in 2014. After emergency surgery at Santa Rosa Kaiser Mahoney rebounded well enough that she won three golds at USA Nationals.

“Some kids have a natural feel for the game,” said Brian Dixon, who has coached Mahoney for five years at the Petaluma Valley Athletic Club. “They seem to know what they’re doing even though they don’t know what they are doing.”

Having the gift but not knowing what to do with it is like driving a Ferrari in first gear. In that Mahoney knows how to drive because of Dixon, a Petaluma home equity retirement specialist. Mahoney is the 10th racquetball player from Sonoma County to be coached by Dixon to compete at USA Nationals.

“Yes, she has the capability,” Dixon said, referring to Mahoney’s future, one that could be the Women’s world champion and an Olympic medalist if racquetball is ever added to the Olympic event menu.

One look at her bedroom wall shows the sport is not a casual activity for Mahoney, a sixth-grader at Corona Creek Elementary School in Petaluma. Eighteen medals serve as her headboard, 18 medals from USA Nationals: 10 gold, four silver and four bronze. Gymnastic and swimming medals were moved to another part of the room.

Of all of them the one that might be the most impressive is a silver medal. Mahoney finished second in the 2014 women’s nationals. Yes, Mahoney then 10, played adults more than twice her age and did more than hold her own. That made her blush, when complimented for that. What made her blush even a deeper hue, which led to silence, was a question she faced.

“Has anyone ever asked you for your autograph?” I said. I usually don’t ask 11-year olds if anyone wants their autograph.

“Yes,” she said simply. Heather looked at John, got approval, responded by blushing more before continuing.

“It was at that (2014) women’s tournament,” she said slowly. For someone who had offered quick and easy responses something was making her struggle.

“It was Rhonda Rajsich,” Heather finally said. Rajsich is from Phoenix, a six-time world champion, currently ranked third in the world, and a legend in the sport. Rajsich was so impressed by Mahoney’s performance in the women’s competition she needed a souvenir. Rajsich is Mahoney’s hero, her role model, the everything she wants to be.

And Rajsich, then 36, wanted the autograph of that 10-year old.

I wanted to ask Mahoney how it felt but it wasn’t necessary. The girl next door said all she needed to say with that crimson face. Like somehow she became the Accidental Celebrity and she was just found out and wow this might be embarrassing. I almost felt self-conscious when I asked her one last question.

“Can you give me The Stink Eye?”

Without pause or encouragement Mahoney lowered her face a bit, looked up and stared straight through me. I became invisible. Or was I a fly on the wall ready to get smacked? Couldn’t tell. Either way I got it, the way her opponents must feel.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at

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