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One step away from the podium is a positive step forward for the United States beach handball programs.
Both men’s and women’s teams advanced through pool play into the medal round. Each lost in Thursday’s semifinals, the men’s team dropping a shootout to Croatia, and each fell in the bronze medal game on Friday.
In the grand scheme of growing a sport in a country that hasn’t emphasized beach handball, that is encouraging.
For the most part, women’s goalkeeper Staci Self said, the United States beach handball players paid their own way to Birmingham. The players' rooms and board are covered during the World Games, but it’s still a costly trip, particularly when you consider their recent schedule. Both teams are fresh off traveling to Greece for the Beach Handball World Championships. That came after a two-week training camp and a tournament in Mexico.
Mix all that together and you have a ton of expenses and missed work time.
“We love the game,” Self said when asked why they play.
It’s also an honor, she said, to represent the United States.
Beach handball is different than team handball, which is played indoors, much like beach volleyball is not the same as indoor volleyball. Most of the current beach handball roster began in the sport by playing the indoor game.
Peruse the bios of both teams and you find every one of them came to handball from another sport. Willard Johnson scored more than 1,000 points in his basketball career at MIT. Drew Donlin played three sports in high school and Ashley Van Ryn was a four-spot letter winner. None of the sports, for either the men or women, was handball. Jamison Whiting and Matthew Koman were college football players. Self played college soccer. Courtney Heeley and Renee Snyder were college softball players. Christine Mansour was a college basketball player. Cedar Bellows participated in basketball, baseball, softball, track and field, rodeo, and NPC fitness competitions.
You get the picture.
“I was basketball, football, baseball, because I’m American,” said Ebiye Udo-Udoma.
His introduction to handball came in the summer before his junior year in high school when he turned on the Beijing Summer Olympic Games. It was about 2 a.m. and he saw a sport that drew his interest.
“I tried to watch the game to figure out what it was,” Udo-Udoma said. “It kind of looked like water polo but there wasn’t water. It wasn’t basketball because there’s a goalie. At the very end, they said it was handball.”
Udo-Udoma, who lived in Southern California then, did a google search for handball clubs. He reached a local club that invited him to join them. That was the beginning of a handball career for Udo-Udoma, who is headed to Poland to play now that the World Games are over.
“It’s such an easy game to fall in love with,” Udo-Udoma said. “Handball is the most American sport there is. If you grew up in the States, you probably played a sport that allows you to cross into the sport of handball.”
It’s also a sport that can take you around the world if you’re involved with the national team. Or it can take you to Auburn.
In 2013, a USA Team Handball Residency Program was started in Auburn. Reita Clanton, who spent 10 years on the U.S. national handball team, was instrumental in bringing the program to Auburn. Self, who was part of the program, said they were told while driving that they had Iron Bowl tickets, which meant they had to stop by Walmart to get some Auburn gear for the game.
They arrived in town on Tuesday, noticed RVs throughout the town and asked what was going on.
“We drove in on Tuesday and everybody was already set up with their campers, tailgating,” said Self, who spent three years in the program. “I asked, ‘What’s going on here?’ And they were like it’s the Iron Bowl. We said, ‘It’s Tuesday.’”
On Saturday, they settled into their end zone seats. Yes, it was the same end zone that Auburn's Chris Davis of "Kick Six" fame visited several hours later.
“He was running right at us,” Self said. “I was like ‘He’s still going, this is happening.’ It was amazing.”
This week, handball returned to Alabama for some more fun times.
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