Rockford-area resident continues to persevere, inspire others

Passion for sport drives athlete to world level competition

by BETH ALTENA

Michael Stephens continues to prove that passion and perseverance can overcome many obstacles in life—he is a living example.

Stephens is a racquetball enthusiast who is still going strong at over 60 years of age and many surgeries and replacements that might well have ended any athletic competition. The athlete thought his days of competitive sport were over when, 10 years ago, he had both hips replaced, a knee replaced and a shoulder surgery. The Rockford Squire reported on his “comeback” two years ago when he achieved what many would consider impossible. After taking time off because of his surgeries, Stephens decided he wouldn’t let his physical challenges take him out of the game he so loves and came back with a vengeance to win the gold at the national racquetball tournaments three years in a row. Each year Stephens advances to a more difficult level, but he puts his best effort into his competition and continues to achieve and advance.

Stephens found his passion in racquetball in 1980. He was the club pro at the 29th Street Fitness Center that year and ran the leagues, taught clinics and gave private lessons. In 1984 he received the Most Improved Player of the Year award, and from 1983 to 1999 was sponsored by Ektelon, Rosie’ s Diner on Reeds Lake and Mark Henry’s Insurance Agency.

This enthusiastic athlete is a favorite among other players and is known both for his intense energy and being well-mannered and fair during matches. In 1985 he joined the MAC in Grand Rapids, where he became their racquetball pro until 1998. During that time he also taught racquetball for Grand Rapids Community College and Cornerstone College.

In 2000, Stephens was forced to stop playing his beloved sport because of his first hip replacement. In 2001 he had his right hip replaced and in 2002 he needed additional surgery on his left hip. Also in 2002, he had his right shoulder totally redone. In 2003, he had a knee replacement and two weeks later had to have the surgery repeated because of a serious infection. Despite this series of serious replacements, he never regretted the toll his sport took on his body.

After his surgeries, in 2003 he began working out six days a week at MVP in Rockford. He believed his competitive years in racquetball were over.

In January 2009, at the age of 61, Stephens was treated for a heart condition and learned he would be on medicine the rest of his life. It made him realize that life really is too short and he needed to live his passion again. He upped the ante in his conditioning and took his chance in the 35-plus C age category in the MAC Open in Grand Rapids. He took home the gold.

In March the same year, he won the gold in the state finals in the 55-plus age group in the MAC in Lansing. In April, he won the gold at regionals in the 55-plus age group. In May, he went to the nationals in Houston, Texas and took the silver in age 50 to 55 and the bronze in age 60-plus C. His fellow players were excited to see him back competing—and winning. The joke was that Stephens came to nationals with his back and both calves wrapped like a mummy, and carried a can of oil, screws and several tubes of bio-freeze.

This year, Stephens is back on the scenes of the country’s most intense competitions in racquetball. May 26-29, he took first place in his division of age 60-plus B. Next year he will play in his age division at the most competitive level: A. In August, Stephens will compete again in the world games held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, taking his passion and determination on, again, to the next level.

Stephens is a Northview High School graduate who attended Grand Valley State University and majored in physical education and psychology. He is currently a bus driver for Rockford Public Schools, because he enjoys working around children. When his students learned he was competing at nationals, they wanted him to bring home some medals to show them. He sure did. Stephens was wounded in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart. Every Thursday he visits veterans in the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.

“I went with Mike to his four tournaments since he began playing again in 2009,” said Nancy Roenzweig, Stephens’ fiancée. “Mike once told me, as much as he loves the intense competition of the game, it is the lifetime of friends he meets from all over the nation that inspires him.”

 

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