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A SOFT APPROACH TO TEACHING HARD HITS : Steve Strandemo Has a Nice Racquet

July 01, 1988|BILL WALKER | Times Staff Writer

CORONADO — This village maintains little contact with the masses. If you don't have an automobile and $1.40 to gain access to its magnificent sweeping bridge, you'll have to see the town from the east, across San Diego Bay.

Most residents prefer it this way, and why not? They're getting by in a country atmosphere with a marine setting and California-perfect weather. More than a few of the 19,000 residents are former high-ranking naval officers who were taken by the climate and life style.

To this unlikely venue--from St. Cloud, Minn.,--has come Steve Strandemo, racquetball instructor nonpareil. Strandemo, who achieved some celebrity as a professional player, has gained almost swami-like status as a teacher of the game.

At his "academy," a single court equipped with state-of-the-art electronic equipment he uses to complement his teaching, Strandemo conveys his message. His students are of both sexes and play at varying levels of skill.

The knowledge dispensed doesn't come cheaply, either, but still they come, to sit at the feet of the man who has written three books on racquetball, who has improved the games of several thousand and who has attained larger-than-life recognition among the cognoscenti. It costs $495 for four days of training, but Strandemo says nobody has yet requested a refund.

His manner is circumspect, almost apologetic, a counterpoint to what seems a more '80s way to convey the message: Be fierce, be intimidating.

"That's not me," said Strandemo, who came west in 1973 after a couple of years as an educator in his hometown. He taught high school mathematics and coached the varsity teams in baseball and basketball, sports he competed in at St. Cloud State.

"We're revealers of virtually a well-kept secret," Strandemo says. "Very few people know how to play--and that goes for many sports--or put together a good game of racquetball. I just feel the intimidating approach wouldn't work well in that kind of atmosphere. It would block out the message and the learning process."

You'll need an imagination, though, if you are to get that message first-hand. Strandemo's sanctuary doesn't have an address. It doesn't have a front door, either. When you call for directions the guru replies cheerily: "Park on the street and come back to the alley. We're right in the middle, across from four green garage doors."

Strandemo stands before the entrance--a gray, unmarked steel door not far from a large dumpster. He is a non-threatening 5-foot-9 with soft features framed by steel-rimmed glasses and a Prince Valiant hair style.

Come on! This is the man, the high priest? This is the place, the temple of wondrous education? How obscure? How unpretentious can you get? And has a grievous financial mistake been made?

But inside is a racquetball court, the only one in Coronado, with a carpeted lounge area and full-length mirrors. Against one of the lounge walls is a video recorder atop a television set. A rectangle in the front wall of the court has been removed and replaced with plexiglass, and a TV camera stands behind it.

The front half of the building is a book store, formerly owned by a handball aficionado. The man had the court built and invited friends to indulge his passion. After he died, the court was used by his successors for storage.

One day early in 1986 Strandemo, by now a Coronado resident, was bicycling about town with his wife, Terry, the sister of Angel catcher Bob Boone. They noticed a faded sign above the bookstore that said simply "Racquetball." Before the handball player's heirs found the perfect place to store their boxes,, they had made a cursory, unsuccessful effort to gain some extra income by renting the court an hour at a time.

Strandemo, who hurriedly signed a long-term lease, had stumbled upon this treasure just three blocks from his home.

Within his 20 x 40 laboratory, Strandemo, a remote voice-over unit affixed to his shirt, goes one on one with the disciples, using his best excuse-me delivery. Occasionally he cajoles, but he never yells.

He is working now with a 40-ish software salesman who, typically, in three years with the sport, has had no formal instruction. The salesman has a stiff-elbow forehand swing that is right out of a tennis primer.

"Maybe you ought to think about trying it this way," Strandemo suggests.

He demonstrates, rocketing a shot down the wall. The salesman swings--and rockets a shot down the wall. Strandemo beams. The TV camera films the exercise.

Strandemo firmly believes that the medium is the message, and proves it within minutes to the engrossed student as he plays back what the ubiquitous camera recorded.

"Videotape cuts out the interpretation between the student and the teacher," he says. "There's no room for personality conflicts on tape. We interpret the tape. It's just a perfect efficiency of time.

"The tape even does our screaming for us."

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