Playing Tennis Saved My Life: The Story of Owen Hand
By June Radicchi
When he talks about tennis the years appear to melt away, lines around his mouth blur and his eyes have a definite sparkle as he remembers how much tennis has done for him.
At 86 years old, Owen Hand participates in several USTA Tournaments a year from California’s own Laguna Woods and Palm Springs hard courts to the clay courts of Pinehurst, North Carolina and on to Chestnut Hill’s grass courts in Boston, earning more than his share of wins and trophies. In 2015 he was the USTA’s National’s #3 doubles team champion with Stan Banta while ranking #1 in Northern California. He also runs and participates in a very popular Nooners Drop In Tennis Program 4 days a week at the Rio Del Mar Tennis Club. The Program allows players 3.5 to 4.5 to play with others of similar ranking and skills. Spectators comes to watch and learn.
“Parity is what makes this Program such a success.” he tells me quietly.
Personally I believe it is the dedication and passion Owen brings to all he does to promote the participation and enjoyment of his favorite sport for the past 51 years.
How does an athlete fail a health test?
Owen was born while the U.S. was in the grips of the Depression. Americans turned to baseball to divert themselves from the bleakness of everyday life. As a child Owen spent time chasing baseballs hit out of bounds as a way of earning a bit of money for their return, sometimes bringing home more than his father could earn that day. He grew to love the game playing every chance he could, eventually even playing semi-pro baseball until he was 30 years old. He also served in the Armed Forces, and professionally he was a school teacher. Unassuming and popular, Owen spent a lot of his spare time with the guys playing baseball and other popular sports. “I also spent my share of time shooting the breeze with the guys, sometimes with a drink in hand.” adds Owen, grinning at me on the Clubhouse deck at Rio Del Mar.
One day Owen decided to read Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper’s book, AEROBICS. He had been considering what sport he could do that was available outdoors all year in California. Maybe the book would give him a hint. Instead, it challenged him to take a closer look at himself physically. Was he as fit as he thought? Well, there were a few extra pounds lingering on despite his activities…
Without a second thought a confident Owen decided to take a health and fitness test.
“I was stunned to find out that my level of fitness nationally was in the lowest 5% for men of my age.” He shook his head sadly as though the memory was fresh in his mind. I knew I had to do something about my health or face the prospect of dying at a young age.
“Around this time I stumbled into tennis because this was a sport I could do year round.
I literally picked up a racquet and began to hit balls against walls and playing anyone who would play with me.” Owen smiles, obviously relishing the memories. “It was all new to me. I enjoyed playing and began to pay closer attention to my habits. I started eating better and together with regular play noticed my stamina improved. But I still didn’t think I knew what I was doing on the courts. It was probably this naïveté that led me to enter a tournament when I qualified for the 45 year old Men’s competition. This would be my first tournament. As luck would have it despite my inexperience, I drew as my opponent the previous year’s tournament winner.” Owen paused then added with a smile, “He won but I gave him a bit of a challenge anyway.”
Owen soon discovered other material that worked well with his new determination to save his own life. This was W. Timothy Gallwey’s work on “the inner game” referring to the mind and body connection for optimum performance. With this new mental armor, unfailing determination and a growing passion for tennis Owen plunged headlong into the tennis world sometimes spending several weeks driving his camper from venue to venue.
Owen’s philosophy of life is simply said. “Never give up.” Several years after that first test, and despite the added years, Owen again took the health and fitness test and found he was now in the TOP 5% for his age!
Owen’s wife, Marcia, also a tennis enthusiast shared these thoughts: “Owen’s tennis involvement has expanded our world. Tennis has kept Owen motivated to be healthy and that is a huge plus for me. It is a lot of fun journeying down this road together.”
Owen spoke of the years he spent coaching children and young people. “The most important thing about coaching kids is to not let your own ego enter the equation.” Owen pointedly referred to his coaching at Watsonville and Aptos High Schools. “The kids have enough pressure put on them to excel from other sources, especially those teens who were excellent academically.” Owen explained that his goal was to be a positive influence for them by praising honest effort, appreciating performance and giving them the opportunity to perfect the tennis skills they could use and enjoy “over a lifetime” if they chose.
While all the details of Owen’s wins on the courts of Palm Desert and the like are impressive, so is his promotion of tennis as a lifelong pleasure. Whether his role is Tennis Pro, competitor, Program Director or the guy who has just agreed to hit balls with a 2.5 hopeful, his focus on the importance of tennis in life is present. It is a way of life he is eager to share.
Since one can’t play tennis 24 hours a day, five years ago, Owen started up a five piece band plus vocalist. His band, Tin Pan Alley Cats, has played at tennis events as well as other venues. When I asked Owen what instrument he played, he replied, “The banjo”.
Of course. It is the instrument most shaped like a tennis racquet!
His philosophy is simply, “Never give up.” Several years after that first traumatic health test he took it again to find, although quite a bit older, he was now in the top 5%.