On October 15-16, more than three dozen athletes from around the country descended on Memorial Coliseum in hopes of becoming part of the United States Team Handball squad. According to USA Men’s Handball head coach Javier Garcia Cuesta, the rising interest in the sport of Team Handball is a result of recent coverage of the Rio Olympics.
“Team handball excitement always rises during the Olympics, but this year was extraordinary,” he said. “I personally received 328 email inquiries about our program. Since Auburn is the official training site for USA Team Handball, it also brings a lot of attention to the university. But not all of our players are in our residency program here on campus. Some of our players graduated from Auburn and we needed to fill the empty spots.”
The national team has 10 resident players here on the Auburn campus. There are also players who live in other places around the country who cannot live and train in Auburn because of work, family, or school obligations. A third group of players are U.S. citizens who play professionally in Europe. All three groups can be called on for official competitions, such as one this past June, at the Pan American Championships.
“We selected eight new players from these on-campus tryouts, and most of them are trying to be in our residency program, starting in January,” Javier said. “We had some really good athletes come here to compete. A lot of big guys. They came from all around the country.”
Javier knows something about quality players. A native of Spain, he grew up playing team handball, a popular action sport around the world that combines elements of soccer, basketball, and water polo. Played with six fielders and a goalie on each team, with two soccer-like goals and a ball about the size of a volleyball, the game debuted as an outdoor Olympic sport in Berlin in 1936. It has been held as an indoor sport at every Olympics since 1972. Javier and Auburn are working hard to help the game catch on in the U.S.
“I played professional handball for Atletico Madrid for 10 years, while also serving as a member of Spain’s national team,” Javier said. “I was in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and then worked as Atletico Madrid’s conditioning coach for four years. I moved to the U.S. in 1979, and for the next eight years I coached the U.S. Olympic Team, where we competed in the Los Angeles Games in 1984.”
Javier went on to positions in Spain, Egypt, Portugal, and Brazil before coming to Auburn three years ago to guide the residency program. During this period he also coached teams at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, the 1996 Games in Atlanta, and the 2008 Games in Beijing.
“We are very fortunate to be here in Auburn. A big part of that is our close working relationship with the School of Kinesiology, as well as the enthusiastic support we’ve received from both Auburn and Opelika. Several businesses and industries, but especially East Alabama Medical Center and RehabWorks, have contributed to our well-being here,” Javier said. “Our training and practice facilities here are outstanding, and we have great collaboration with the Kinesiology faculty and leadership, especially Mary Rudisill, Dave Pascoe, and Reita Clanton, a former Olympic handball player herself.”
One of the many players who traveled to Auburn in hopes of making the team was Gabe Poling, a native of Chillicothe, Missouri, a town best known as the home of sliced bread. A varsity tennis player at Concordia University in Nebraska, this was Poling’s first trip to The Plains.
“For me, this opportunity is a dream come true,” he said. “I don’t have a handball court at home. I just drew a square on the gym wall and practiced my throws. So to step on not just a real handball court, but an Olympic-sized court? It blows my mind.”
Poling said the camaraderie was strong at the tryouts, and that the people of Auburn were great to be around. Javier agreed.
“There’s no doubt this is a special place,” he said. “We’re lucky to be here, and we very much appreciate the amazing support we have received. We have felt welcome here from Day One, and feel like we have an exciting future at Auburn.”