The following information was submitted by Jill McDonnell, spokesperson for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago.
The backstory is similar to the plot of a Hollywood script: Teenage boy often in trouble, on the verge of joining a gang and heading permanently down the wrong path. A screenwriter would have a wise teacher or a convenient tragedy cause the young man to reassess his priorities, but in reality, for Oscar Zamora, the intervening factor in his young life was love of the game. Zamora picked up the sport of handball when he was 12 years old, turned his life around, and, 25 years later, will serve as a referee at the 57th Annual U.S. Handball Association National Junior 4-Wall Championships at Lattof YMCA, 300 E. Northwest Highway in Des Plaines, Dec. 27-30.
“When Oscar first came to the Y, he was getting into trouble a lot, and there was some question of whether or not he should continue to be a member,” said Lattof YMCA program specialist Don Quinlan, who has run the center’s handball program since 1980. “One especially trying afternoon I gave Oscar a handball and told him to start throwing it around on the courts. While I thought he might lose interest after awhile, Oscar was on the court for several hours that day. His passion for the game had been sparked.”
Quinlan enrolled Zamora in his handball program, where the boy felt consistently engaged with and challenged by the game.
“It’s incredibly difficult to learn,” Quinlan said. “You’re using both your right and left hands, and there’s a lot of hand–eye coordination, footwork and agility involved. That’s why most people become players for life, because they’ve put in so much time over the years to master the fundamentals.”
Zamora’s hard work at mastering handball’s fundamentals paid off throughout his teen years. He won the USHA 15-and-under Nationals tournament in Atlanta, placed second in the Junior Nationals in Albuquerque and topped the leaderboard at numerous local and regional championships.
During the upcoming championships, he’ll serve as a referee to the more than 100 children and teens, ages 9-19, that come from as far as Ireland to compete.
Spectators are welcome to come to the tournament December 27-30 at Lattof YMCA. Games begin as early as 8 a.m. and end as late as 8 p.m., depending on outcome.
In addition to developing a passion for the sport, Quinlan said he felt that Lattof YMCA’s handball program also helped to build players’ self-confidence and sportsmanship.
“Since handball is so difficult to learn, we focus on bringing out the best in each player,” Quinlan said. “The objective is not to necessarily win, but to simply try your best. And if someone loses, even if they get beat 21-0, if they tried their best, our players know that they can walk out with their head held high.”
Zamora graduated from high school, now owns a small business and is a married father of two children. He still lives in the Des Plaines area and continues to play handball at Lattof YMCA.
“Through the game of handball I learned so many life lessons,” Zamora said. “I learned to take responsibility for my actions and I learned that it is what is inside of you that helps define who you really are. There are so many lessons I learned on the court that have inspired me to be the best I can be off the court.”
For Quinlan, who still coaches the area’s most elite handball players, the tournament serves as a reunion of sorts. Former players like Zamora and Sunh Lee, who was an All-American and captain of the Lake Forest College handball team, return to work with and inspire the young athletes.
“It’s a great feeling,” Quinlan said. “At the YMCA our mission is to help support children and families, and Oscar is a perfect example of when a child has a caring adult presence in their lives, and a passion for something, how successful and happy they can be.”