Owen Hand, 93 years young, steps off the court victorious. He’s just won three sets of tennis against competitors 30 years his junior. Celebrated by a chorus of congratulatory calls from players and friends across the Tennis Club of Rio Del Mar’s courts, Owen bashfully jests to me how his on court running really isn’t quite what it used to be.
Born on July 4th, 1930, Owen always had athleticism coursing through his veins. “I was always the first kid playing at the park and the last kid to go home… I played any sport I could but baseball was really my thing.”
His passion and skill for baseball lured him away from his home in Alameda to compete for San Jose State College before graduating from Cal Poly SLO. He ultimately made his home in Santa Cruz County, moving to Freedom in 1960 where he taught 5th graders at Freedom Elementary for over 25 years. While at Freedom he loved engaging his students with creative class projects and he also coached the Junior High basketball team. One of his former pupils, Scott Taylor (now 71) recalls, “Everyone wanted him as their teacher because he was a super friendly guy and a good teacher… at recess he would go out on the field and throw balls, playing with the students”
However, Owen admits this period in his life was sadly tainted by vices he now regrets: cigarettes and beer. This began to change at the age of 35 when one of his co-workers convinced him to play his first game of tennis. After a few sets, the ever-competitive Owen took a liking to tennis and endeavored to hone his tennis skills to a competitive level.
“I was determined to get better,” Owen recalls. “But the bottom line was I had to quit smoking, I had to lose weight, I had to get healthier to have a chance at beating anyone.”
Motivated by his new found love of tennis and burning desire for victory, Owen began jogging and working out in addition to regularly practicing and taking lessons. After years of consistency, and playing in tournaments all over the USA, Owen says “I was in my tennis prime in my 60’s.” This was when Owen and his tennis partner beat the former US tennis champion, Whitney Reed, becoming the Over 60’s Doubles Champions of Northern California.
Tennis had more than just a positive impact on Owen’s health. It also motivated him to give back to the Santa Cruz community and share the game that in many ways saved his life. He coached tennis at both Watsonville High and Aptos High for two years. One of his Watsonville High students from 1977, John Zivanovich, recalls “Owen was always very encouraging and supportive.”
After retirement, Owen started his own tennis summer camp on a court he built in his yard and then, from 1986, continued to teach both boys and girls tennis teams at Harbor High School for nine years.
Nowadays, Owen is a busy man: for over 20 years, he’s organized the Tennis Club of Rio Del Mar’s popular ‘Nooner’s’ program four times a week; five times a week he runs stretching sessions; he regularly bikes and swims; he plays the banjo in his band, The Tin Pan Alley Cats; and he occasionally still pummels his tennis competitors.
Just a couple of years ago, Owen triumphed, winning the US National’s Over 90’s Men’s Doubles Title. After 53 years of competing in national tennis competitions, Owen finally brought home the illustrious “Golden Ball”.
How does Owen do it? What is his secret to his seemingly unrelenting vivacity? Simply put: his love of tennis. Owen believes his joie de vivre has continued because “tennis was always my incentive to keep me in shape, to keep improving.”
Owen believes tennis is a great sport for all ages but particularly ideal for school-aged kids. “Tennis is year round, you only need one other person to play with, the equipment is relatively cheap, and the courts are a lot more accessible than they used to be!”
If Owen is any testament, anyone can start playing tennis at any age. Nonetheless, Owen believes that “it’s never too early to get kids on the court… If someone had given me a tennis racket and took me out there, I might have excelled at tennis when I was a kid.”
Like others his age, you might think that Owen would start to take it easy? No, not Owen Hand! He’s busy planning his next big adventure – biking 33 miles around Crater Lake.
Writer Elise A. Cline is a political science major and journalism and disability minor at U.C. Berkeley