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He's a handball champ at 81

Edna Kotal describes her husband, Larry, as a whirling dervish who runs handball opponents ragged.

"He has tremendous energy," Mrs. Kotal said. "He'll play two or three hours at the Y and then come home and mow the lawn.

"I'd be a basket case."

So would most people. But Larry Kotal is not like most people, especially for someone his age. Kotal is 81, and last week in Baltimore he won the U.S. Handball Association's first over-80 championship.

It was Kotal's 11th national title since 1986, and he has been playing handball since he was 10 years old _ more than 70 years.

"It keeps me in shape and it keeps me feeling young," Kotal said. "And I get to meet a lot of nice people."

Kotal, a retired insurance salesman who lives in the Gulf Harbors subdivision of New Port Richey, plays handball three times a week at the Clearwater YMCA, the nearest location where he can find competition.

"Larry likes to play with the young fellows _ the 60-year-olds," Mrs. Kotal said. "It keeps his game sharp."

Kotal proved how sharp his game is last weekend in Baltimore as he dispatched three opponents to win the over-80 final. He defeated Bob Bosworth of California 21-8, 21-14 in the final, avenging a loss to Bosworth in a past championship.

"I won a national championship in Baltimore in 1987, and after I won last week, someone said I ought to buy the place," Kotal said. "He said I already practically owned it."

The 1987 over-70 championship was his greatest triumph, Kotal said. He defeated four former national champions en route to the title, opponents who all were younger than him.

"I was 76 and I was giving up five years to everyone else," Kotal said. "That was the big thing. No one knew me and I was upsetting people and suddenly I was in the championship. It went to a tie-breaker, and I won 11-10."

It was the only tournament that Edna Kotal, Larry's unofficial coach, has ever missed. By chance, Larry Kotal ran into an old girlfriend from New York who was at the tournament with another player.

"Her name was Olive," Kotal said. "I couldn't believe I had run into her after all these years _ and Edna wasn't there. It's a standing joke between us now."

"I haven't missed any more tournaments since then," Edna Kotal said.

The Kotals, who have been married 47 years, retired to New Port Richey in 1980 from Westchester County, N.Y. They met during World War II during an air raid at a boarding house in London in 1945.

"We had all the air raid curtains drawn and it was dark when I bumped into Larry in hallway," said Mrs. Kotal, who was born in Scotland. "I didn't know he was an American _ I hadn't met any before. I thought all Americans sounded like Jimmy Cagney. He sounded like a Canadian to me."

Larry and Edna, who now have three children and two grandchildren, agreed to meet for breakfast and soon fell in love. They married and moved to New York, where Larry soon returned to playing handball.

He began playing at age 10 on a single wall in his native Manhattan. He played against Catholic priests at a nearby parish who helped hone his game. "They taught me the "Irish Whip,' " Kotal said.

In high school, Kotal went out for the sport, with mixed results.

"It was the school's first handball team and about 70 kids showed up to try out," Kotal said. "I was in the middle of the line and finally I reached the front, hit the ball off the wall a few times and the coach said, "You're out.'

"I protested, saying I could beat any of the other players. So I began watching the players who made the cut and they all hit the ball very hard. I was a control player but I was determined to make the team, so I changed my clothes and changed my hair and got at the end of the line.

"The coach didn't recognize me the second time and I really smacked the ball. And I made the team."

Kotal continued playing after school and after the war, winning several local championships at the YMCA in Yonkers, N.Y. The trophies and plaques in a wall-sized cabinet at the Kotals' home attest to his achievements.

"He's got so many that most of them are packed away in boxes," Mrs. Kotal said.

"I don't keep them unless they are gold or silver," Kotal said.

Kotal plans a prominent display for the silver bowl he received for winning last week's over-80 title. Kotal never considered competing nationally until after he retired and a friend at the Clearwater YMCA convinced him he could be successful.

He has won several YMCA national titles, including last year's over-75 championship, and his most recent exploit was featured in USA Today. Kotal sees no immediate end to his handball career.

"I hope to keep playing until I'm 85 and hopefully there will be an over-85 division by then," Kotal said. "I don't know if I'll be able to keep up with those young fellows anymore by then."

Edna Kotal has no doubt.

"He's so full of energy and he's so full of life," she said. "I'm so proud of him."