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USA Team Handball

National Athlete Spotlight: Gary Hines

Jan. 31, 2014, 6:58 a.m. (ET)
For most Americans, team handball is nothing more than a gym-time activity. For Gary Hines, it's a craft he's spent 13 years polishing. As Hines prepares for another training camp as a member of the Men's National Team, he took time to speak with USA Team Handball and reflect on his journey as a professional team handball player. 

Gary Hines was introduced to the sport at 14. Four years later, he was the youngest member of the Men's National Team that traveled to the 2003 Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic. In his first game, he jumped -- literally -- on the international stage.

While scoring 12 goals in his debut was impressive, it was his jumping abilities that drew the most attention. So much so, in fact, that articles the next day blessed him with a nickname: 'The Gary Hangtime Hines Show'.

"That tournament started it all for me," Hines recalls. "People realized I had talent and was not to be taken lightly."

He first discovered his jumping ability in 8th grade gym class. After seeing several classmates attempting to touch the backboard of a basketball hoop, Hines, one of the shortest in the class, decided to try. To everyone's surprise, he passed the backboard and grabbed rim.

"Ever since then I've been trying to jump higher and higher."

Between good genes and hard work, Hines claimed the high jump state championship his senior year with a clearance of 6'10", a record that still stands today.

On the court, Hines relies on his jumping abilities to overcome his 5'11" frame.

"When I take my first jump shot and score, there's always a big "wow" in the stands," Hines said."No one expects me to jump over them or so high being only 5'11" and most the players I play against are taller than me."

Despite the taller competition, Hines is able to jump over players allowing him clear shooting lanes. Like all sports though, opponents alter game plans to limit one's particular strengths. A sport known for its natural roughness, team handball is no different.

"Some players will try and take cheap shots at me because they're not able to stop me."

Hines overlooks that issue by strengthening other aspects of his game. Given his jumping talent, Hines has the rare ability to play multiple positions on the court, a luxury most players don't have.

Hines' abilities on the court and unwavering commitment of excellence resulted in him out growing competition and training resources in the U.S. Looking to pursue his dreams of being the best team handball player in the U.S., Hines sought the help of then head coach, Isadora Martinez.

"When I told him I wanted to play professionally, he helped me get my first connection with a 2nd division team, Tres de Mayo, in the Canary Islands in Spain."

Once he had a foot in the door, Hines put an even greater effort in his training and dedication to the sport. In 2008, Hines' hard work resulted in an opportunity to play professionally in Germany, where he still competes today.

While he has spent the past seven years living life as a professional athlete, one accomplishment still eludes him: the Olympic Games.

Three Olympic Games have passed in which Hines saw Team USA fail to qualify a team handball squad in either men's or women's competition. Some years, it seemed as though the team had a chance if it performed well in qualifying championships. Other years, the federation was lucky enough to fill a 16-man roster, sometimes with players of limited or no experience.

What does Hines think needs to be done to get Team USA in the right direction?

"I think we need to start looking at the best athletes in our sport and bring them together for one common goal: winning."

So, how does Hines feel about the newly created Residency Program at Auburn University?

"To be honest, I've been hearing about a residency program since I started playing team handball." Hines said. "It's long overdue. I hope this will blossom and our sport will grow and be in the mainstream."

Hines wants to see the Residency Program bring the best American athletes in team handball together for one common goal: winning. More than that, Hines hopes the Residency Program will make earning a spot on the National Team more difficult to obtain.

"I believe in hard work as well as having the talent to play on the National Team," Hines said. "I had to prove myself to get a spot; it wasn't given to me. I worked hard to prove I deserved to play on that level."

Hines is already looking beyond the Residency Program, suggesting marketing and other strategies to bring awareness of team handball in the U.S. The fact that cup stacking matches are televised on ESPN over handball highlights continues to perplex him.

"The U.S. has too many athletic people that want to someday be in the Olympics. There's too many people who want to play at the highest level for us to not be dominant in handball."

While the Residency Program benefits players currently involved in team handball, the bigger picture brings to light concerns regarding getting kids involved at a young age. Having spent the past seven years overseas, Hines has a front-row view to the grassroots level of team handball.

"(In Europe) kids are introduced to handball like kids in the U.S. are introduced to basketball or football," Hines said. "The schools have teams like the U.S. has basketball or football teams."

Hines himself was introduced to team handball through the Boys & Girls Club. But where most kids eventually return to recreational basketball, baseball, or soccer leagues, Hines stuck to team handball and ran with it.

"I tell kids to not be afraid to learn (team handball)," Hines said. "Give it a try and if you like it, just like any other sport, it can take you places. I visited another country for the first time at the age of 16 because of handball. I've traveled the world with this sport. I'm also living a dream of being a professional athlete. So, the best thing I can say is, 'just because everyone's not playing the sport, don't be afraid to try something new. You might just find your calling in handball'."

For Hines, and for many Americans who find a passion in the lesser known sports, choosing the uncommon path is one he is proud of.

"I take pride in what I do and how I carry myself. Being able to say I'm making something of myself is a great feeling being that I grew up in foster care from home to home from the age of seven. Going through the stuff I've been through, it's not often that the success story is as good as mines I'm always thankful and always striving for more because I know that I've come a long way."

"I take pride in what I do and how I carry myself. Being able to say I'm making something of myself is a great feeling being that I grew up in foster care from home to home from the age of seven. Going through the stuff I've been through, it's not often that the success story is as good as mines I'm always thankful and always striving for more because I know that I've come a long way."

You can follow Gary Hines' journey by liking his Facebook page here or checking his YouTube channel here.

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