Chance Wachholz and Paul Wachholz each have a pair of palms that are textured in calluses and extend into toughened fingers — trademarks of playing handball.
Handball is a maniacal sport that demands vigor, quick agility and power — as much brain as brawn. It also helps to have mighty hands.
Chance Wachholz has all of the above, and he has his grandfather to thank for it.
Between Chance and Paul, the Kalispell pair has won a combined 38 handball state championships through the Montana chapter of the U.S. Handball Association. Paul Wachholz, a longtime real estate broker and business owner in the Flathead, has tallied 35 of those titles, including a separate individual achievement that carries impressive weight: a world championship he won in the late 1980s. He has won the most all-division titles combined in the state, according to the Montana Handball Association.
After four decades of playing competitively, Paul has stepped aside from the circuit and assisted his grandson in carrying on the family’s impressive legacy.
Since moving here six years ago, Chance has already won three titles in the tough open division, including last year’s singles championship and the recent doubles crown, which he won this year with partner Eric Plummer of Idaho.
Chance, a real estate broker with West Venture, will try to defend his singles title April 11-13 in Billings.
Though the sport has become somewhat of a niche hobby across the U.S., Montana still boasts a strong core of talent that regularly partakes in the intense game formerly known as “firecracker.”
In Kalispell, players like the Wachholzes nurture their passion and skillset in one of the sport’s lasting hubs in the state. The Kalispell Elks Athletic Club is one of seven sites recognized in Montana with designated handball courts — boxed in concrete walls that are 40 feet long and 20 feet wide. The Elks’ courts are considered among the finest in the state, and a familiar crew of devotees still gathers there on a regular basis for daily action and tournaments, including the annual Valentine’s Day event that has been taking place for more than 30 years and attracts players from across the Pacific Northwest.
“A lot of times, avid handball players compare it to two-man sparring like in the old school coliseum,” Chance says. “It’s a very brutal game. It’s one on one, and it’s two men and a ball and their only tools are their hands.”
For the Wachholzes, the family’s tradition of excellence is rooted in Paul, who picked up the sport after transitioning from being a successful bodybuilder.
“They didn’t think a bodybuilder could ever be a handball player,” Paul recalls. “I started playing and was hoping to prove them wrong and I finally did.”
Paul moved to Kalispell in 1967, and a few years later the first Elks court surfaced. He picked up the sport and pretty quickly became one of the state’s best players.
“To me, through all my business years, I could play an hour of handball and get in the zone and forget about all the business world or any other problems. And it was such a wrenching workout,” Paul says.
Paul taught his son Lance the sport, and by age 10, Lance’s son Chance was attending morning matches and playing along with the adults. It was a baptism by fire.
“(Opponents will) pick on your weaknesses and show no mercy on you,” Chance says. “There was a group of guys, older men, who played on Saturdays. That was my opportunity to go with my dad and play with these guys … It was a good group of guys who I could play with and actually hang in there with and not get beat on too bad. I continued to grow and transition into a good player.”
When Chance moved to Kalispell in 2008, he hardly knew anyone, so he often found himself at the Elks playing handball. Within a year, he beat the seven-time singles champion to win his first state open title.
It was just another in a long line of accomplishments that made the Wachholz name well known in the handball circuit, as it still remains.
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