Most weekdays, well before dawn breaks, John Aubrey makes the descent down the staircase from the main lobby of Fort Smith's World Class Fitness.
He's on his way to the racquetball courts, eager to start the day by knocking the ball all over the enclosed venue.
Racquetball has been Aubrey's passion for nearly 30 years. It's his outlet, it's his refuge.
"It's a good game, it's a fun game," Aubrey said. "You can play until you can't walk any more."
Over the years, injuries haven't stopped him, other than the occasional pulled muscle or the barrage of bruises that comes when he can't avoid a sizzling, hard-hit ball coming his way.
Age hasn't stopped Aubrey from doing what he loves, either. He recently turned 80, and is the club's oldest active member.
"You can still play, no matter how slow you are, you can slow the game down to your pace and make them play at your pace," Aubrey said. "They will like clobber the ball and you just look around for it; you don't go chasing it and know where it's going sometimes. But it's fun, it is good, clean fun."
Racquetball wasn't always Aubrey's hobby. It was actually tennis.
But around 1990, during a visit to St. Louis, he played racquetball for the first time, and immediately was hooked.
Aubrey hasn't stopped playing it ever since.
"I play three days a week, from about 5:30 in the morning or a quarter to 6 until about 7 something, and that's Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and then we play Tuesday night here (at World Class Fitness) in the league," he said.
One of the things he enjoys about playing racquetball has been the friendships he has developed over the years with his playing partners.
"(I like) the camaraderie," Aubrey said. "You can't even find a nicer group of people that are diverse. It's not like they're all in the same type of businesses or anything like that, they're very diverse; we've got plumbers and electricians."
A native of Woonsocket, R.I., Aubrey visited Fort Smith for the first time in the 1950s while serving in the Air Force. The town and the area made an impression on him, so much so that he took up residence here in 1965, two years after being discharged.
"I just packed up and came here because everyone was so nice," Aubrey said.
He went on to run a hair styling studio as well as a photography studio. Aubrey is still active with his salon, Mr. John's Lifestyle Salon, which he does five days a week and it doesn't allow him much opportunity to travel.
That also means he hasn't had many chances to play in out-of-town racquetball tournaments; instead mainly playing competitions locally. It includes the fall and spring leagues, which were started in the mid ’90s by Dann Schwinger, the racquetball director at World Class Fitness and the current president of the Arkansas Racquetball Association.
"We've got a good group of guys and girls downstairs; everybody gets along real well," Schwinger said. "We've been around for a long time, we lost a few members, but we have a good time.
"John hits the ball really well if he can set up, but the legs aren't as good as they used to be. But it's like the guys say downstairs, you don't want to set him up where he's going to kill it."
Some of Aubrey's family and friends have been recently encouraging Aubrey to play in a national tournament, especially after he turned 80.
"We tried to get him to go to nationals and play in the 80-and-over group," Schwinger said. "There's always about a dozen or 15 guys that actually play in that group and I keep telling John you need to go.
"His wife (Merlin) was telling me the other night she would try to talk him into going maybe one time, now that he's in the 80-and-over group to the national tournament."
Whether he does get to play in a national tournament or any tournament for that matter, Aubrey is eager for the challenge. It was quite different the first time he played in an actual racquetball tournament.
"He was so nervous before his first tournament, he was literally hyperventilating out on the court and we had to get him calmed down so he can play but that was 20 years ago," Schwinger said. "It's a little different when you step onto the court with a referee up there and playing people you don't know."
For the record, Aubrey has one career racquetball championship, a state doubles title he won approximately 20 years ago. He won that one playing with a new partner, after Aubrey's former partner had suffered a major injury prior to that event.
Next month, World Class Fitness will be the site of the 16th Duboise Electric Racquetball Pro-Am Classic presented by Langston Drug Stores. It will be played April 13-15, and Schwinger said he expects several of the top professional racquetball players to be in attendance.
Aubrey will also be there, and although he won't be competing, he will be there in a "cheerleader" role to encourage the competitors.
"At my age, that's what you do," he said with a laugh. "Those guys would kill me out there."
Schwinger said he is glad Aubrey remains heavily involved in the tournaments.
"John's been one of my sponsors in my tournaments for years, always throwing in a little cash to help run my tournaments. ... John's good about cheering everybody on and watching everybody play," Schwinger said.
And when Aubrey does get to step onto the court to hit the ball, he doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon.
"There's no future; you just (keep) playing," he said.
"You want to win, you're out there to win and you don't want to let someone get away with anything. Basically, you're competing, and you can compete until the end of the game; whether you win or lose, it was a good game. As long as you play a good game, you feel good, you feel good about what you did."