Staff Photo: Will Hammock New York native Michelle Hellman is the new head boys tennis coach at Peachtree Ridge. She coached previously at Mariner High School in Cape Coral, Fla.
New York native Michelle Hellman is the new boys tennis coach and an assistant volleyball coach at Peachtree Ridge, as well as a biology teacher at the high school.
Hellman, who grew up on Long Island, moved to Georgia in February 2012, when her husband Brian was hired as digital sales manager at WXIA-TV in Atlanta. She has coached tennis for the past 10 years, most recently at Mariner High School in Cape Coral, Fla. She also played a season of college tennis at Penn State before playing her last three years on the competitive intramural team.
In this installment of "Getting to Know ... ", Hellman talks with sports editor Will Hammock about her move to Georgia, her okra allergy and her family connections to basketball.
WH: Let's start off with telling me how you got to Georgia.
MH: I was born and raised in New York. I moved to Florida in 2003 and was in Florida teaching and coaching until last January. My husband got transferred and we moved up here. I was lucky enough to get a sub position in a biology/science classroom and fortunately I got hired on on full-time this year. I was an assistant varsity volleyball coach in the fall and was able to get the boys tennis job, too.
WH: Is this your first experience with the true Deep South? Florida's not really the South.
MH: Florida's definitely not the true South. I'm loving it. Even though the school's so large, it's definitely a nice, tight community within the school. That's been helpful when it comes to who to see, who to know. Not just the high school, but here in the community. I've been lucky.
WH: What's the best part of living in Georgia?
MH: It's very chill. Most people are relaxed. The twang. I tasted okra. I broke out with an allergy to okra. A little bit of traffic I've found out, but it's great.
WH: Where did you grow up in New York?
MH: I was born and raised on Long Island and then 81st (Street) and 2nd (Avenue) on the Upper East Side.
WH: That's real New York.
MH: Yeah, I know.
WH: What do you miss about the city?
MH: The traffic with the public transportation, the easy commute. Everything's 24-7, so being able to get your dry cleaning at 3 in the morning. But I wasn't teaching there, so it was a totally different lifestyle.
WH: Was tennis your main sport growing up?
MH: It was. I played tennis and soccer. When I got to seventh grade, my dad said we're only doing one car pool so you have to choose. I was only 4-foot-10. I'm still only 4-10. And I was a keeper. So I was having better tennis results, so I just started playing tennis. Up north, the tennis circuit and nationals are pretty competitive. It took me where I needed to go. Penn State was the greatest four years and three summers of my life. In hindsight, I should have probably gone to a smaller school where I was still the big fish in the smaller sea vs. a big school where I was a very, very little minnow. ... After my freshman year, the traveling was hard. A smaller school was better for my personality. But I still played (intramurals after that first year on the varsity team). It's fun. It's a sport for a lifetime.
WH: So you did a lot of traveling with tennis?
MH: All the time. We had hard courts, clay courts, all nationals from Texas to the Orange Bowl in Florida. Things have changed now. There's a very different junior tournament. They almost made it wider where you can enter tournaments based on your own level and then get seeded, vs. these are the only tournaments, lose and go home. Now if you're still a beginner or novice, you can go far in a novice tournament. So they've made it more open to all levels, which is nice. It's good for the sport.
WH: Do you play now?
MH: I play occasionally when time permits. I went from volleyball to helping Coach (Megan) Hill with conditioning and soccer until the tennis position opened up. I broke my wrist playing indoor soccer last fall with 18-year-olds. I was the keeper. I was in a cast. So I picked up a racquet a few times over the summer. I'm ready. It will be fun to play again. We have quite a few returning boys players on the varsity team. A lot of them are in academies. I'm hoping to really get to work with the JV and drill with some of those players and build the program.
WH: Do you think high school tennis will be similar here as it was in Florida?
MH: I was in Orlando and my team was heavily Hispanic. The Venezuelans play tennis all the time. There I was coaching all Venezuelan girls and we went to state. From there, I moved to Southwest Florida to a small town called Cape Coral near Fort Myers and football is king. I had to recruit tennis players and there was very little money there. So the talent was nowhere near the talent in Orlando. But the talent here is pretty good. It will be nice to see what we can do here.
WH: What do you do in your free time these days?
MH: I'm still driving and getting lost. I purposely leave my GPS at home and try to find my way back home to Alpharetta. I'm still learning Georgia. I haven't been here a year yet. We've hit the museum. We've hit the aquarium a couple of times. I've been to the Fox Theater. I've seen a couple of hockey games, baseball games, Hawks games.WH: Tell me about your family connection to basketball.
MH: My uncle played for the Nets when they were in the ABA back in 1969. Best friends with Ernie Grunfeld, Lou Carnesecca and Bernard King. Those were family dinners at my house on Sunday nights. Basketball in my house is pretty big. When they looked at me being said I'm only going to be 4-10, it was a bit of a problem. I'm a gym teacher's daughter. I think they were hoping that everyone would play basketball growing up. I always watched the games. I prefer college basketball to NBA basketball.
WH: Do you like teaching and coaching? Will you be doing this in the long-term?
MH: I think so. Seeing how kids develop on and off the court, learning responsibility and accountability. You get to see the kids from freshman year and then shake their hands at graduation. It's amazing to see their change. Being a part of a team with the sportsmanship that's instilled here from the teachers and coaches and administration at Peachtree Ridge, they'll take that throughout their lives. They take it with them. Coach so-and-so taught me this. People I work with, they have students come back and say thank you. You don't see that every place, so I'm very lucky.