Football, basketball, baseball and, recently, soccer are at the forefront of American sports. But, outside of the states, another sport captures the hearts of fans and players alike — handball.
Usually set up with goals 40 meters apart, two teams of seven take the court to throw or bounce the ball past the goalie. It’s described as soccer but played with hands instead of feet.
In Austin, there is one team that gets together on Saturdays in Zilker Park to play an outdoor version of the game. The players range from former professionals to newbies and come from Bolivia and France to Houston and California.
Jennie Choi, former USA Team Handball member, put the team together a couple years ago.
Choi said she always loved sports growing up but didn’t learn handball until she arrived at West Point military academy. Choi eventually joined the USA national handball team.
“It was a dream to be able to put on a USA jersey and play for your country. It’s awesome, and I will always love that and miss that to an extent,” she said. “But I also love playing sports for fun. I don’t have to get so intense about it when we’re just having fun out there.”
Over the first year of the group really kicking-off, people from all over the world who live in Austin have joined.
“Austin is such a diverse city, and I think that’s reflected in our team,” Choi said. “We have people from all over the U.S. and all over the world — we have people who have been playing since they were a little kid to new joiners.”
Helene Ipas, a graduate student from France, grew up playing handball and now plays with the team.
“When I first arrived from France, my first thing was will I find some people playing handball. And so I tried and I found this group and its cool,” Ipas said. “In France, it’s really popular, especially for girls. Basically, guys will play soccer or rugby, and girls will play handball or basketball. I played handball because I sucked at putting the ball in the basket.
For some, such as Ipas, handball represents a familiar pastime, but for others, such as UT grad David Vargas, it’s a whole new world. A former swimmer for the Bolivian national swim team, Vargas said he loves the diversity and “fun” mentality of the group.
“In a way [handball is] like what the United States is — a melting pot. This sport is kind of like a melting pot, where we have all these different nationalities,” Vargas said. “The part that I like the most is the informality. Once it becomes formal and you have a team, you have to go for the win. I already do that at work, and I want to just chill and relax.”
But the team isn’t just made up of international players. Taylor Coffee, a native of California and UT graduate, said he’s been playing with the group on and off since 2009.
“I had seen it on TV during the Olympics, and I just kind of up and Googled it one time and found we had a team in Austin, and I went out and played with them. Six years later, and I’m still here,” Coffee said. “It’s fast-paced and contact — it’s not just letting people go by you; you still have to hit them. And it’s with your hands — almost all American sports are with your hands — so it translates pretty easily.”
Despite having the elements of a sports that Americans love, handball continues to have a small following. All the team members said they’d love to see the sport grow in popularity.
Choi sits on the Board of Directors for the USA Handball Federation. Although her competitive playing days are over, she still tries to do as much as she can to support the sport.
“I try to pitch it to some schools here in the Austin School District because I know parents are worried about kids, especially with football,” she said. “It’s semi-physical but still high intensity, fast-paced sport, and so I think kids really like it; they’re just not exposed to it. I think if we get kids playing, then we’ll have more people playing in the future.”