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Thursday, June 7, 2012
Rhonda Rajsich fights for a third world title

By Cristina Goyanes
Special to espnW

Rhonda Rajsich
Rhonda Rajsich had just six weeks to recover from her brutal beating and subsequent reconstructive surgery before competing for -- and ultimately winning -- her first world title.

The story of Rhonda Rajsich's attack outside her Hermosa Beach, Calif., home four years ago this June plays like a scene from "Law & Order." While walking alone down the desolate Strand, a paved waterfront bike path lined with houses including her own, around midnight, she came across a suspicious-looking guy -- the spitting image of Shaggy from "Scooby-Doo" -- loitering outside her neighbor's empty home.

"Hey, how's it goin'?" he asked. At first, Rajsich, then 29, didn't realize he was talking to her. She looked around, saw no one and politely responded "Nothing, man." Right then his friend -- a man she described as "pure evil" -- appeared from her neighbor's patio and began to verbally threaten her. Confused but somehow not scared, Rajsich dismissed his harsh words and walked right between the two men, continuing past her own home. She didn't want them to know where she lived in case they were robbers.

Just 20 feet from her door, the two men jumped her from behind, beating the side of her face in with brass knuckles. From the first blow, she felt her face shift, literally. Her bones shattered and moved out of place. She put her fists up like a boxer to block her head as they continued what she called "the beat down." Ten punches later, Rajsich was still standing. She never screamed, cried, begged them to stop or lost consciousness. Instead, she managed to turn around and face her attackers. The 5-foot-10 pro racquetball player and former college basketball star had the strength to defend herself, but one thing kept her from unleashing her wrath.

Turning the other cheek

"I really, really, really wanted to hit them back, but I didn't want to break my hand on their dumb faces and take away my chance to go to worlds," said Rajsich, who was referring to the racquetball world championships in Ireland six weeks later. Instead she decided to fearlessly stare them down. Stunned by her reaction, the men backed away. "Shaggy" screamed for them to leave. As they began to retreat, Rajsich turned and kept walking down the Strand with her hand covering the right side of her face.

Rhonda Rajsich
Rhonda Rajsich will defend her two-time world title at the IRF World Championships beginning Aug. 4 in the Dominican Republic.

"I actually felt like I had a hole in my face, like the entire right side had caved into itself," she said. Suddenly, she heard someone coming up behind her again. It was "Pure Evil" running with his fist cocked to his ear, ready to throw a Superman punch. With her right eye swollen shut, Rajsich had little depth perception and put out her left hand, like a stop sign, to feel for her attacker. Seeing this, he slowed but continued toward her until she could feel his breath on her hand. This time, she resolved she would fight back.

"I was ready to block, kick, hit, whatever I needed to do," Rajsich said. "I remember very clearly what he said at that point. He was like, 'I'll kill you right now! I just got outta jail, bitch. I'm not scared!' And I said, 'Go ahead, kill me!" He paused for a second and then took off.

"Can you believe it? After all that? I was like, 'Really?!'" Rajsich said.

The aftermath

When the whole ordeal was over, Rajsich walked into her house and went straight upstairs to her bathroom to crack open the sealed bottle of Vicodin she had received for a concussion she'd gotten at a tournament earlier that week.

"I don't like taking medicine, but I thought, 'This is gonna hurt in the morning!'" said Rajsich, whose adrenaline kept her from feeling any pain. Her roommate, who was home having a drink with a friend, walked in to say hello, dropped her wine glass at the sight of Rajsich and started screaming. Her friend dialed 911 despite Rajsich's pleas to not make a spectacle of this.

"I can't explain why I was so calm," Rajsich said. "It all happened so fast." She spent the following week in the hospital and 10 days later underwent reconstructive surgery after the swelling subsided on the right side of her face. The procedure should have lasted four hours, but when the surgeons found more tiny pieces of shattered bone than anticipated, it lasted closer to 10 to 12 hours. After they removed each fragment, they rebuilt part of her face -- from her eye socket to her cheekbone to part of her jaw -- using titanium plates.

"My right eye is sitting in a titanium circle," said Rajsich, who disagrees with friends who say she looks the same as before. Perhaps it's the constant reminders -- a weird feeling when she chews or smiles or the scar she can feel inside her mouth with her tongue -- that keep her from forgetting she's never fully healed. But as different as she feels and may look, Rajsich swears nothing has changed since the assault. At best, it brought to light how much love and support she has in her life -- friends and family hosted countless fundraisers to help her pay medical expenses -- and how important sports are to her. From the first punch that night in June, worlds had been on her brain. Even after the long surgery and longer recovery, Rajsich was more determined than ever to participate in the prestigious biannual event.

"It was the reason I got out of bed every morning," she said. "I could have very easily sat there and stewed in my own misery, but I didn't have time for that because I had a purpose and that was to go to Ireland and represent Team USA."

Fighting chance

Rajsich's reason to move forward was almost taken away from her. Upon learning of her incident, Team USA coaches began talking about her replacement at worlds.

"It was heartbreaking to hear that they were considering taking me out," said Rajsich, who cried for the first time since her attack after receiving this devastating news. In a way, it was a bigger blow to her than 10 brass-knuckle punches. As a last-ditch effort to fight for the spot she had earned, she emailed the then-coach and told him to do what he thought was best for the team, but in the meantime, she would continue to train as if she were going to worlds to win.

"Whether you take me with you or not, I will be ready to be the world champion," wrote the ambitious blonde who had dropped 37 pounds of muscle lying in bed all day and eating liquid foods like protein shakes and soup. "If I don't win the gold for the U.S., that's on you."

Her powerful words, written with complete conviction, worked. Not only was Rajsich allowed to compete at worlds wearing a face mask (similar to ones worn by NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and Rip Hamilton), but she did exactly what she had promised. In 2008, Rajsich, who had participated in the tournament for years, became the world champion for the first time.

"After I hit the winning shot, I gave my opponent a hug and as she walked off the court, I doubled over, falling to the ground and couldn't stop crying," Rajsich said. "All I could think about was, 'I'm not even supposed to be here. I just did something that I had wanted to do my entire life.' It was my first one, my first world title."

Rajsich has been on top ever since. She defended her title in 2010 and will return this year to maintain her world domination in the sport at the international tournament in Dominican Republic this August.