Former L and C tennis coach still has a love for game of his life
by: Christopher Onstott Gundars Tilmanis, 67, says stepping down as tennis coach at Lewis & Clark College after two years will only free up time for him to do other things.

Maybe it was destiny. After all, he entered the world (in Latvia, no less) on D-Day - 6-6-44.

It didn't have the global impact of the Normandy Landings. But 'Operation Til' was a rousing success, if you ask all of those Gundars Tilmanis has touched on his nearly 67 years on the planet.

Tennis is his game, but good will is the calling card of the longtime pro, teacher and coach who hung it up this spring after 20 years working with players at Lewis and Clark College.

Try not to use the term 'retirement' around Tilmanis.

'The word makes me feel very nervous,' he says. 'When people talk about retirement, I leave the room and go outside - even if it's raining.

'I'm not really retiring. There are a lot of things I've wanted to do but haven't been able to. My schedule will open up now to where I can spend more 'Til' time, do some stuff that is dear to my heart.'

Tilmanis exudes optimism despite just having fought his most difficult battle. In March 2010, he was diagnosed with cancer and had his prostate removed, then underwent 7 1/2 weeks of radiation.

'The doctors feel pretty good about the results,' he says. 'Hopefully, that's behind me. I'm back to working out and playing a lot of tennis.'

While undergoing treatment, Tilmanis ran his annual summer tennis camp for four weeks at Oregon Episcopal School with co-director Dick Lenker.

'If you didn't know, you wouldn't know,' says Lenker, who has run the camp with Tilmanis for 22 years. 'He just kept going. You talk about a tough guy.'

For the past 10 years, Tilmanis was head coach of the men's and women's teams at L and C, after working with Pioneer athletes for a decade before that. But that's not the extent of his impact on the Portland tennis scene. For nearly four decades, Tilmanis has run the gamut in making his contributions both locally, nationally and even internationally.

Tilmanis spent nearly 20 years as a teaching pro at West Hills, Mountain Park and Eastmoreland racquet clubs, specializing in his work with juniors.

'Til is a legend among Northwest teaching pros,' Lenker says. 'His development of young players goes from the ceiling to the floor. No one has come close to him in teaching eventual (high school) state champions. He has had so many, you can hardly count them all.'

Tilmanis coached three players who played in the Grand Slams on the international circuit - Steve Docherty, Brian Joelson and Samantha Reeves.

Hundreds of his prodigies have gone on to play Division-I college tennis - 'I wouldn't even like to guess how many,' he says. But he gets a charge, too, out of working with those who don't reach such heights.

'It's rewarding to develop players from scratch,' Tilmanis says. 'I get a kick out of working with players who are trying to make their JV team, too. I'm a teacher and a communicator more so than I am a lot of other things.'

First to the net

Gundars was born during the height of World War II. For a while, the Tilmanis clan lived in displaced prison camps in eastern Europe. The family moved from Latvia to Australia when Gundars was 4.

'When my parents learned the Russians were going to stay in Latvia, they decided to emigrate,' he says. 'They didn't want to live under communism.'

Tilmanis grew to love many sports, especially tennis. He was raised in Melbourne during the Owen Davidson/Allan Stone era and became well-known in Aussie tennis circles.

'Til is more famous outside of Portland than he is here,' Lenker says. 'We were together at the U.S. Open one year. I remember being in the lobby of our hotel, the Essex House, when (John) Newcombe, (Rod) Laver and (Ken) Rosewall stopped by to give him a hug. He grew up with all those guys.'

After two years playing college tennis in Australia, Tilmanis transferred to the University of Oregon in order to get a bachelor's degree in physical education.

'I started as a blind walk-on,' he says. 'I didn't even know if they had a tennis team. I read about tryouts in the student newspaper.'

Tilmanis made the team and wound up as its No. 1 player as a senior. Today he stands as the only tennis player among 120 athletes on the wall of honor at the Ducks' new John Jaqua Center.

At Oregon, he married a coed, Janet, with whom he has parented four daughters. The newlyweds spent three years in Australia before moving back to the U.S. in 1973.

'We bought a Volkswagen bus and traveled up and down the coast, handing out resumes,' Tilmanis says.

Tilmanis landed a job at West Hills and spent the next two decades teaching at private clubs. In the early '90s, while at Mountain Park, he began also doing instructional work at Lewis and Clark. When the coaches of the men's and women's teams departed, 'I fell into having both teams,' he says.

By that time, Tilmanis was well-established as a speaker at the USTA National Tennis Teachers Conference, held during the U.S. Open in New York every year. His first gig was in 1975.

During the years, 'I've made more presentations than any other speaker,' he says. 'I have a story to tell. I like to come up with material that's new and innovative. I've never given the same lecture twice. I've pruned it and improved on it.'

Tilmanis also conducts a workshop for Northwest high school coaches every year.

'I have a lot of material,' he says.

It's never dry. Nor is his manner of teaching tennis. Tilmanis likes to have fun, and he wants those around him to feel the cheer, too.

'My dad was a humorous person,' he says. 'It set the tone for the whole family. My grandmother used to tell me to surround myself with positive, happy people. That was our family growing up. it's the theme that I've lived by.

'I blend together humor with teaching (technique) to keep their attention and to make sure they enjoy the experience. The No. 1 thing, 'Are you having a good time?' No. 2, 'Are you learning some stuff?' '

Two mornings a week, Tilmanis conducts small-group women's clinics.

'He's the most positive coach I've ever had,' Paula Clancy says. 'Everything is, You're getting better; you can't fail.'

'It's about the attitude he helps us create. He's an excellent teacher, too. He's so concise in his way to explain how and why to do something - when to take a shot, when to be patient, when to get aggressive.'

'He has all these little sayings,' Vickie Meihoff says. 'I love the one where he says, 'There's lot of ways to lose - you might as well try them all.' And, 'First to the net, first to the pub.' '

More than tennis

During his 10 years at L and C, the Pioneers never won a Northwest Conference championship. This season, the women's team was 6-8. The men, with five freshmen and sophomores, went 0-16. If that bothers Tilmanis, he hides it well. He understands it is hard to recruit to the Palatine Hill campus, with its high academic standards and expensive tuition costs.

'I had a lot of success in my playing career, and had some losses, too,' he says. 'I tell my students, 'I never walked off the court having lost a match.' According to the score, I lost, but according to my dedication and commitment to trying hard, playing smart and hustling, I've never walked off the court a loser. Sometimes you lose because the other guy's better.

'The win-loss record is the most objective way of evaluating team success. On the same line as that is student satisfaction - having them enjoy the experience, having them try hard, having them compete, having them become better people.

'If that wasn't on the same line, as a coach, you'd get depressed. But we're preparing people for their own lives and for the direction of others. There has to be a blend. Let's compete very hard to win, but let's enjoy and learn from the experience.'

The message got conveyed. Til has been appreciated.

'His program was more than just tennis,' says Jimmy Chau, who played for Tilmanis at L and C and was an assistant coach there his final seven years. 'He's an amazing man, coach, mentor - all of the above. He's been like a second father to me.'

On April 24, during the school's annual alumni match, about 40 alums showed up at 'The Dome,' in part to pay tribute to Tilmanis. Another 30 who played for Tilmanis sent in messages in letters and emails.

Among them:

Jessika Morales: 'I thought I was going to Lewis and Clark to play some volleyball and maybe do a bit of studying. I had no clue I would end up on the tennis team learning from one of the best coaches ever. … you have made a remarkable difference in my life.'

Maggie Peach: 'Til's goal was to combine hard work and fun, and in my four years at Lewis and Clark, he never failed to combine the two.'

Chris Arends: 'You are by far the best coach I've seen or heard of. Your humble, upbeat style, always (with) a smile, a friend to everyone who ever came in contact with you; and in practice or during a match, never scolding or negative - even when we deserved it for goofing around.'

David Ely: 'There were always more talented players than me, but I learned so much and owe most of it to Til. … I think (he) saw maybe more in me than I even knew I had.'

Liz Nguyen: 'The highlight of my college career wasn't a professor or a project, but it was a pot of flowers and a tin of Almond Roca from Til (as a senior gift). Having a great coach like Til showed me that the best things come in unexpected places.'

Caitlyn Homer: 'You were absolutely the deciding factor in me attending Lewis and Clark. You were unmatched out of any tennis program of the schools I looked at. You made the difference.'

Kendall Hamilton: 'Coach Til had many lessons to teach on the court, but the ones I will remember the most are those about life that he liked to squeeze in before explaining the next drill.'

Daniel Chang: 'I can't tell you how many times you have inspired me to be a better person first and a tennis player second.'

Ed Roessler: 'Lewis and Clark will never be the same without him.'

Rocky Campbell: 'Playing for you was my proudest and fondest memory at Lewis and Clark. … The world needs more Til.'

Tilmanis will stay busy. He will increase his number of speaking engagements. He will work on his own game - he is a member of a Super Seniors team that has qualified for the USTA Sectionals at Sunriver in late June. He will begin work on a fourth teaching book. He will conduct private lessons and continue teaching small groups.

There will be more time with family. He will slow down long enough to smell the roses. But only if they're in proximity to a tennis court.

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