Siblings Erika, Adam Manilla Are Ready To Showcase Racquetball At Pan Am Games
by Nicole Haase
When Erika Manilla, the top women’s racquetball player in the U.S., takes the court in mixed doubles at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 this month in Santiago, Chile, she’ll have only spent a few hours practicing with her partner. He lives in San Jose, California. She lives in Denver. Yet she has every belief that they can walk away with a gold medal — one of three she hopes to earn at the event.
Manilla has that confidence due to the close relationship she and her partner have. In fact, she’s known him her entire life. Adam Manilla, 28, is three years older than his sister, but both started the sport at the same time as kids, and it’s been an integral part of their lives ever since.
Now Adam is set to participate in his first-ever international competition and both Manillas are hyped to represent Team USA at the highest level of the sport.
“It has been a goal for us for a very long time,” Adam said. “It’s pretty special that we get to do it together. We’re super excited. This is a dream for both of us to do this.”
The Pan American Games begin Oct. 20 as a multi-sport, Olympics-like event for athletes from countries across the Americas. In addition to sports familiar to Olympics fans, the quadrennial event also features sports such as bowling, water skiing and racquetball that won’t be on the program at next summer’s Paris Games.
For athletes in those non-Olympic sports, the Pan Am Games take on added importance.
Erika is the only U.S. athlete to qualify in all three racquetball events — singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Erika and Adam won the right to represent Team USA in mixed doubles after winning the U.S. title earlier this year.
“We won against an incredible team, and it’s just honestly probably out of any win that I’ve ever had, that was my highlight,” Erika said. “I was winning alongside my brother, and now that we get to go to our Olympics — the Pan Am Games — and experience a world stage for the first time together. It’s everything.”
There’s nothing quite like playing the sport she loves with the person who knows her best, she said. When winning hinges on split-second decisions and instinctual movements, the close relationship they have is a massive advantage and means they don’t often need to physically play together to know each other’s tendencies.
More importantly, they can anticipate each other’s emotions. That, it turns out, is way more crucial to success than how they swing their racquet.
A game of racquetball moves quickly — men’s shots can travel around 160 mph — and often can be subjective based on the referee’s calls. How a player manages stress, anger, frustration, confidence and focus makes the difference between winning and losing.
“You can train with your partner, but a lot of it’s going to be knowing your partner’s tics, knowing what you have to do to keep their confidence up,” Erika said. “Once you get to a certain level, everyone has the skill to be there. Everyone is an incredible athlete, everyone can execute unreal shots that 98 percent of the population can’t, and so that last little bit is the mental aspect of it.
“(Adam) knows it before I even recognize that I’m flustered.”
He is her best friend, her training partner and her coach. The two watch the other’s matches online and text each other throughout so that the sibling playing receives coaching and encouragement whenever there is a break in the game.
It’s unconventional, but it works for the Manillas, who both came back to racquetball as professionals and now members of Team USA after time away to attend college and work — something their parents put a priority on.
Adam was working as a mechanical engineer in January 2020 when he decided to try and turn pro. It turned out to be a less than ideal time to quit his stable job, but the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to think outside the box and he created Manilla Athletics, an online racquetball coaching platform with the mission to grow the sport in a digital way and bring professional coaching to all athletes, no matter the location and no matter the skill level.
Both Erika and Adam had worked with coaches using online platforms, which has helped them work to perfect the product they offer. They knew what worked and did not from the viewpoint of someone receiving coaching.
Manilla Athletics was the turning point for both of them.
“He made it possible for us to play a niche sport, coach, travel and make a difference within our sport,” Erika, a co-owner, said of Adam founding the company.
The siblings are aware they play a niche sport but describe their fans as few, but true. They credit their family and the community around racquetball for making them the people and players they are today. Their parents Victor and Nancy first introduced them to the game. That closeness is one of the things Erika loves most about the sport. She remembers studying abroad in college and making friends immediately by finding her local racquetball court.
“You’re always welcome,” she said. “In racquetball, once you pick up a racket and you start learning, you are all of a sudden accepted into a whole new community that’s worldwide. No matter where you go with a racquetball court there, you automatically have this family no matter what city you’re in.”
While other racquet sports have experienced recent spikes in popularity, Adam said he doesn’t view those sports as competition — anything that gets someone to pick up a racquet is good and may help serve as a gateway to them trying racquetball.
While professional and international competition racquetball is incredibly fast and acrobatic, it doesn’t have to be. Nor is it a sport reserved for middle managers on their lunch break.
“It’s a sport that you can play at any age,” Adam said. “We have players as young as four, up to 80. It’s a sport for all ages that is a real fun way to get a workout in. It is the best cross-training for any sport too, as it increases quickness, hand eye coordination, pretty much everything that relates to all sports.”
Through their coaching and social media accounts, the Manillas hope that they’re showing people what an amazing sport they play. Winning a medal (or three) in Chile would be personally fulfilling for the highly competitive siblings but would also put more of a spotlight on what is possible when playing racquetball.