By Zachary Katz, special to USTA.com
Dale Chilton pointed his focus wherever his talents led him. In his varsity tennis days, he was an undefeated star at Park High School in Cottage Grove, Minn. Blessed with uncanny hand-eye coordination, Chilton loved competing on the courts all day and then taking on all comers in games of pool in the evening.
The carefree days wouldn’t last. Shortly after graduating from high school, Chilton's suffered several herniated discs in his back in a work-related accident. His livelihood, as well as his tennis career, had come to an abrupt halt.
"[My diagnosis was] that I wasn’t going to be able to play tennis after that point," Chilton said. "It basically felt like I was told to stop living."
Darkness crept its way in to Chilton’s life. Once lean and athletic, the inability to enjoy physical activity led to depression and weight gain. That was followed by the death of Chilton’s father five years ago. Approaching the age of 50, Chilton spent "days at a time" in bed.
"I was in a really bad way at that point … just feeling sorry for myself," Chilton said. "In my worst days, I found myself at 245 pounds and, with my back, I couldn’t even move."
Chilton credits his son, Dale Jr., with eventually getting him away from home in order to teach him tennis. A talented baseball player as a teenager, the 21-year-old wanted to simultaneously conquer a new sport and see if he could emulate some of his father’s tennis success at his age. Part of that challenge was to get Dale Sr. back on the court and back into his old winning form, far from easy given his physical state.
Then, triumph. Chilton discovered a form of magnetic therapy that greatly improved his back condition. Wearing magnetic soles in his shoes and applying magnets to the problem areas of his body, the alternative technique provided the relief he had long been searching for.
"They’re the reason I play tennis today," Chilton said. "I tried them and I knew something happened immediately."
Soon Dale Sr. was starting to regain some of what he’d lost, both in life and on the tennis court. Father and son, side by side, began to practice several nights a week at the Fred Wells Tennis & Education Center in St. Paul, Minn. The Chiltons’ flashy play caught the interest of adjacent courts, and they were soon invited to join a team and play USTA League tennis.
"At the time, I was just hitting in a windbreaker and jeans," Chilton said. "When I was asked if I had ever played any leagues, my eyes must’ve gotten as big as beer bottles."
The Chiltons accepted the challenge, and Dale Sr. soon found himself playing on a number of teams, qualifying for three 2012 USTA League National Championships at the 3.5 Adult (with Dale Jr.), 3.5 Senior and 7.0 Senior Mixed levels. His 3.5 Senior team became the first squad in history from USTA Northern to claim a national title at that level.
"I probably played 75 USTA [League] matches last summer," said Chilton. "Tennis saved me to the point that I’m almost as healthy now at 50 as I was when I was playing originally at 18."
In 2013, the man not-long-ago confined to his bed has risen up and raised his game to a 4.0 NTRP rating, and he is eager to test his rediscovered skill against better competition. Chilton now jokes that he is "in a 25-year-old body, but with 25 years of added experience." Supported by his son and teammates, USTA League participation continues to take him to places he’d never imagined.
"Passion is an interesting thing in life," said Chilton. "Now I can say I live for the game."