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Revisiting a world record broken in Walpole

March 25, 2010

In June 1978, two young Walpole men played what was, for a short time, the longest continuous tennis game ever. They played at the Walpole High School tennis courts. One of the men, Bill Nethercote, now living in Norfolk, wrote the following account for 180 several years ago, and it is being republished here.

Today, there is a plaque at the WHS tennis courts honoring Nethercote and James Driscoll and their world record (pictured above).

Account by Bill Nethercote, as written in 2007:

I am no longer a Walpole resident. I was born and raised there and stayed until I received my BS in Marketing from the University of Arizona and my MBA from Babson. After graduate school, I went to work for a company that transferred me to California where I spent 15 years before returning in 2000. I have been living in Norfolk since then.

I had just completed my sophomore year at the University of Arizona when we set the record in 1978. I was home in Walpole for the summer at the time.

Here is how it started. I was nineteen at the time. Jim Driscoll and I lived across the street from each other on Oak Hill Drive in Walpole and had played on 2 state championship teams in high school at Xaverian. We had read an article in Yankee magazine about a man from Vermont that set the record for continuous play against a variety of opponents. It got us thinking a little bit and pretty soon we convinced ourselves that we could attempt to set the record for play with the same two people. We got real serious real fast and got together with two people that were key. The first was our high school tennis coach who was the local chapter chairman of the American Cancer Society, Dom Baldassari, who has since passed away. The second was a doctor friend of ours, Vic Popeo, who was a local pediatrician and tennis player that had a tremendous amount of knowledge about what makes people function with a lack of sleep. We wanted to do this as a fundraiser for a good cause which is why we chose the ACS. We also wanted to make sure that our progress was monitored by a professional that would tell us if we were putting our health in jeopardy.

At first it was a little frustrating because nobody took us seriously. We were dead serious but we had to convince people that it was not just a college prank. We got the idea during Christmas break and decided to train heavily during the spring. We worked up to running 10 miles per day from that point on and completely changed our diets based on the input from Dr. Popeo. I was in Arizona and Jim was at Holy Cross. By the time we got out of school for the summer in May, we were both in the shapes of our lives. At this point, we started heavily driving the fundraising effort by getting people to pledge financial support for every hour that we played. Nobody thought we could do it which drove us to a mental state of accepting nothing short of success. We were going to do this if for no other reason than to spite those that didn’t believe that we could.

We wound up raising almost $10,000 for the cancer crusade. Guinness (World Records) allows you a 5 minute break for every hour that you play and you can accumulate the minutes. With that in mind, we played the first 36 hours straight and accumulated enough time to take a nap as well as a reserve of break time in case one of us got hurt. After that nap, we played for another day and accumulated enough time for another quick nap. By this time our bodies and minds were starting to break down a little and it was very difficult to wake us. Pain was setting in and Dr. Popeo told us that this was our last nap as it was getting too difficult to get us going again. From that point forward we stayed awake for the duration.

Physically, anyone can get themselves in good enough shape to do this but the tough part is mental. It can get very lonely and draining in the middle of the night when you question why you would do such a thing. It is equally as difficult to combat the heat of the day when 90+ degree weather hits with the humidity that comes with it in this area. Hallucinations were a very real part of this. There were times when Jim thought there was spaghetti in the air and other times when I had no idea where I was. Fortunately, this did not occur simultaneously and we were able to keep each other moving forward toward the goal.

That was key as we both felt that nobody knew what we were going through except each other and therefore we would not take any advice from anyone else, except Dr. Popeo.

The record itself was 103 hours and 46 minutes. We broke the previous record by 16 minutes. We had originally wanted to shatter the record but there was such an overwhelming feeling once we set the record that it was almost impossible to continue for too much longer. Once the euphoric feeling of doing something that had never been done before sank in, it was tough to motivate yourself to continue given the intense pain and emotional trauma that our bodies were going through.

Looking back, it was far and away the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. My body has paid a price to some degree with surgery on both knees and an ankle that still swells to this day. It’s kind of funny, but I can remember the exact moment when my ankle went down after one of our breaks and Dr. Popeo told me that I could not take my shoe off from that point forward as the swelling would prevent me from getting my sneaker back on!

Once we set the record, people were very supportive. They actually became more and more supportive as each day went by and they realized that we were serious and were going to do it. When I first got out of college and had it on my resume, it was the first thing that an interviewer wanted to talk about. It still comes up today.

The record was broken about 6 months afterwards but we were the first civilians to do it. The record was previously held and subsequently broken by people in the military.

Unfortunately, with my living in California for 15 years, I lost touch with Jim Driscoll.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Bob Burnham permalink
    October 29, 2012 5:57 AM

    Hi Bill,
    This is Bob Burnham. I was one of your roommates in Tucson.
    I never knew this about you. This is great. I remember you
    being the easy goin’ coolest from Jan. ’78 till you left for summer break.
    I hope all is well for you. I’m in Los Angeles now.

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