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Vergas man's heart issues pave way for handball national title

Tom Olson, 70, of Fargo won his division in the United States Handball Association national championsips last month in Minneapolis. Dave Wallis / The Forum

Fargo - Tom Olson endured four heart surgeries in the past 10 years with the constant reminder of his family’s history of heart disease lingering in the back of his mind.

The 70-year-old decided he needed to find a way to keep his heart strong while forming a bucket list in the process.

Staying healthy and his to-do checklist interlaced when Olson found his niche in handball.

Handball is a sport in which players use their hands to hit a rubber ball against a wall, hoping that their opponent can’t return it.

In June, Olson competed in his first United States Handball Association national championships – and won. He could check the first item off of his bucket list.

“It was something totally unexpected when I did get to the championship,” Olson said. “I was just ‘Wow,’ – it kind of dawned on me then that I was playing for a national title.”

Olson, of Vergas, Minn., said he is only the second handball player from the area to win a national title.

Olson became the national champ in the singles 70-75 year old division. However, his age doesn’t seem to be a factor once he steps on the court.

“Even though I’m older, the competitive spirit is still there,” Olson said. “In my mind I might as well have been 25. It didn’t make a difference that I was 70 years old.”

Olson competed in both the singles and doubles divisions at the national championships held in Minneapolis.

His competitiveness fueled him to the singles semifinals, where he ended up facing his doubles partner, Denny Tallman.

“The hardest part was playing my doubles partner,” Olson said. “We played singles in the morning, and we knew we had to play doubles together in the afternoon.”

Olson defeated Tallman in three sets, making sure to keep the same tactics he always does during tournament play even while facing his friend.

“When I’m playing, I try to avoid eye contact with my opponent,” Olson said. “I never look them directly in the eyes. I never looked in Denny’s eyes.”

He continued that mentality into the final match, where he once again took his opponent to three sets.

The difference, though, was his final-round opponent was only playing in the singles division, meaning he had only played two previous matches. Olson – playing both singles and doubles – already played four.

“We were both diving for balls (in the final round),” Olson said. “Even at 70 (years old), yes.”

This match, he had a bit of help from a bystander watching through the glass walls of the court. Olson had never met him before.

“He said ‘…Hit the z-serve,’” Olson said. “I said I was trying, but he told me to keep hitting it. I ended up scoring eight points right away. I came out (after the win), and he laughed and said, ‘I told you.’”

Olson still plays handball once a week at the YMCA with the Fargo-Moorhead handball club.

He hopes to cross another item off of his bucket list in August of 2015 by participating in the World championships in Calgary, Alberta.

“I use handball as a goal to stay in shape – I want to play handball so I need to stay in shape,” Olson said.

“When you look in medical journals, they say handball is one of the perfect sports for your body because it works your legs, torso and both arms.”