Chance encounter gets former NHS tennis coach Paul Holt back on court (with VIDEO)

Last modified: Thursday, July 03, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Nearly 40 years since a life-changing construction accident, former Northampton High School tennis coach Paul Holt is back in the game.

Holt, 72, of Northampton, spins his wheelchair in the direction of a ball served by his wife, Pam, on the tennis courts in Look Park. The chair is designed for athletic use, with slanted wheels on the sides and a fifth wheel in back that is useful for turning, he said.

The only change in rules is that a player in a wheelchair is allowed two bounces before hitting the ball, which is to accommodate having to move the chair — though Holt often hits it after one.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m doing it again.” Holt, a carpenter, fractured his spine in 1976 when the platform on which he was standing broke while he was dismantling a tobacco barn in order to convert it to a home. He was 34 years old at the time. The injury left him with limited use of his legs, and he now walks with the use of canes.

Although he was able to get back to work — and finish converting the barn to a home — he could no longer run around the tennis courts, he said.

Holt was a guidance counselor in the Northampton School Department for some 20 years, and coached tennis at Northampton High School from 1971 until 1980. Though coaching became more of an effort after the accident, “I still enjoyed doing it,” he said.

But Holt went without playing tennis until a chance meeting during a winter vacation in Florida earlier this year.

One day during one of the first weeks of their trip, Holt and his wife were on a tennis court in Melbourne Beach. He was sitting in a folding chair, tossing tennis balls for Pam to hit, when they saw two men around his age playing tennis in wheelchairs on a nearby court. “And they were good,” Pam Holt added during a recent interview at Look Park.

The men approached Holt on their way off the court, and asked him if he wanted to try. One of the men loaned him a wheelchair, and soon Holt began playing every day for the rest of the two months they were there.

It was the first time they went to Florida since Pam retired this January after running Holt Real Estate on Hawley Street in Northampton for nearly 30 years, Holt said, so their trip was longer than the usual few weeks. He initially wondered what he would do on that long of a vacation, he recalled.

Before they left Florida, he bought his own wheelchair for playing tennis, and a bike rack to transport it home.

Back in Northampton, he and Pam now try to get on the courts every day.

The biggest challenge for experienced tennis players, Holt said, is getting used to moving the chair instead of being able to “run without thinking about it.” In the months since he has gotten back to playing, he has concentrated on building the strength in his arms so he can move the chair as fast as possible.

“With wheelchair tennis, you get an automatic workout while you’re playing, just by pushing the chair around,” he said. He has lost weight as well as strengthened his body, he added.

Holt said he has been also able to get back on the courts with friends who he has been unable to play with in decades.

“One of my first thoughts coming back (from Florida) was, ‘I can’t believe I can go back to playing with these people,’” he said.

Among them is Kenneth Barrows, 75, of Huntington. Barrows grew up in Northampton and began playing tennis with Holt in Look Park during the late 1950s. He has played with Holt once since his return from Florida this year.

“It’s amazing to watch him on the tennis courts,” Barrows said. “He’s quite good at” using the wheelchair.

He and Pam have three children, all of whom have been involved in athletics. Charles Holt of Northampton is the baseball coach at Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield and this summer is coaching the King & Cushman Northampton Legion team, and Zachary Holt of Easthampton has coached baseball at Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton. Their daughter, Kristen Heath of Southampton, played tennis for Northampton High School.

Holt said that while he’s had a lifelong interest in tennis, it wasn’t until February that he learned it could be played in a wheelchair. Now, he said, he wants to make sure other people know this, and is looking for more people in the Valley who he can play against in wheelchairs.

It’s not necessary to be an experienced tennis player to learn to play in a wheelchair, he added.

“I would be happy to just help somebody get started with it,” said Holt.

Anyone who is interested may email him at paulholt123@comcast.net.

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.