"The Rookie and The Vet" - Entry 4

June 21, 2014, 10 a.m. (ET)
The veteran is preparing his mind and body for one of the toughest challenges of his handball career.

His teammate is gearing up to compete in his first ever international tournament donning the Red, White, and Blue.

One has an idea of what to expect. The other is ready for anything.

They both have their sights on the elusive Pan American Championships gold medal. And you get to read their story as they blog their way through the experience.

Captain Jordan Fithian and first-year member of Team USA, Ebiye Udo-Udoma, present: “The Rookie and The Vet” – Blogs from the Pan American Championships. 

Entry #2: The Rookie
June 21, 2014

"It feels like the first time, it feels like the very first time." 

We've spent the past week in Joinville, Santa Catarina, Brazil, and it's been a week of many firsts. It's my first time competing internationally, my first time traveling with the team, and if memory serves, it's the first time I've ever been in South America. According to my teammate, Chris Morgan, it took 36 hours, 1 minute, and 32 seconds from when we left Auburn to when we got to our hotel in Joinville. It took four planes, two automobiles, and an elephant. 

Just kidding on the elephant—it was mostly a lot of layover time. 

Not that I have anything to compare it to, but staying at Hotel 10 in Joinville has be quite delightful. The language barrier hasn't been much of a problem with the amount of English speakers in the area, and Joinville has a very tropical feel with weather that has been on the moderate side. The hotel rooms have two adequately sized beds, a television, a refrigerator, a shower, a sink, a toilet, and it's attended to every morning by an endearing cleaning staff. Most importantly, the hotel has Wi-Fi and American-compatible power outlets, which was one of my biggest concerns traveling internationally (#FirstWorldProblems). On the topic of power, one of the things that I have never experienced at a hotel is that you need to insert your room key into a wall slot inside the room to power the room. Not knowing this made for a mini-adventure the night we arrived as I spent time trying to navigate through the darkened room to find the light. 

One of the unique things about this experience is that the 20th FIFA World Cup is taking place throughout Brazil. At meals and in-between training sessions, many of us have flocked to a television to catch a glimpse of whatever game is currently on. Watching the Cup games has been a relaxing and enjoyable way to spend time together off of the court. Many guys get a kick out of giving their personal color commentary, from forecasting which way a ball is going on a penalty kick, to critiquing the match officials' and players' performance. The days that Brazil plays in the tournament are considered holidays and many workers leave early or get the day off to catch the game, which is not all that surprising considering the rich soccer culture here. Within 1,000 feet of our hotel, there are no less than eight soccer fields of various sizes and surfaces. I can only imagine the day handball is as popular in the US as soccer is in Brazil and you'll see kids throwing a handball around at local parks, but I digress. 

I've had my fair share of mistakes to learn from, both on and off the floor. I left my shoes at the hotel the day of our first practice. I neglected to rinse out the guys clean laundry thus prolonging their dry time. I lost one of my room keys. And I did not understand that meal start times aren't when the cafe opens, but are five minutes after when the entire team is supposed to meet together in the lobby since it's important that we all enter the cafe as a team (although we usually finish at our own leisure). These are but a portion of mistakes I've made over the past week. 

On the court, it's been a matter of adjusting to the increased tactical complexity of international competition. Training with the full squad and with the Brazilian team has offered me a much more comprehensive perspective on the game than I've gotten domestically back in the US. Losing 32-20 on Wednesday and 40-16 yesterday is not how anybody would like to start out their international career, but to be honest, it was important that the result wasn't favorable. It's a reminder that the margin of error is small when you get to the international stage. You have to bring your, "A-game" and not take anything for granted. Brazil's squad was easily the best I've seen in person, and I'm grateful to have a first-hand look to see and learn from what they could do individually and collectively. They are also very cordial and stand-up guys that shared a hotel, gym, dining area, and even a bus from the arena with us over the past week. 

Getting my first taste of international competition playing Brazil, I've learned that I'll have to refine my reads and instincts on both sides of the floor, and adapt my game from what I do in the residency program back in Auburn versus what I can do against international competition. Admittedly, I was a bit overwhelmed on the court with trying to take in information from the other guys on the court, take in information from coaches Javier and Christian, and trying to figure out how to integrate what everyone wanted me to do, while still playing my game. I got flustered and gave up easy goals on the defensive end, missed close shots on the offensive end, and even struggled just dribbling the ball up the court to run the break. Particularly, my biggest challenge on the court for me has been on the defensive end and playing the point of the 5-1. It's a high energy role in the front and center of our defense, and a lot is expected out of me. The Brazilian team played with more perspicacity than I have previously experienced, and I made numerous mistakes in positioning and coverage due to them exploiting my inexperience. 

Off the court, my biggest struggle has simply been keeping a positive frame of mind. I've let little things get to me that I normally overlook. I've taken well-intentioned critiques and playful jabs from my teammates much more negatively than the manner in which they were intended, and it's been a challenge for me to maintain the right mental attitude. It's been a tough past two weeks on the court for me, both back in Auburn where we started training camp and here in Joinville, but I take comfort in knowing that mistakes are an inevitable part of the learning process. Fortunately, "you're only a rookie once" as my old high school DB coach would say, and I'm glad to have made these mistakes during a week of friendlies before the actual competition so that I can learn from them. Even the 1992 US Men's Basketball Team, commonly referred to as "The Dream Team", lost their first friendly as a team to a group of college kids, before proceeding to go undefeated to Olympic gold by defeating its opponents by an average of 43.8 points. I'm assured that even though there are initial struggles, things do get better with time and experience, and I'm thankful to be on a team that has understanding and enthusiastic guys to help boost morale. 

That said, patience isn't the virtue of the hour as there's less than three days until the tournament! 

To think that just over a calendar year ago I was at an open tryout in Colorado Springs, and my first international competition is just days away is a tad surreal. So as I pack my bags for our impending departure, I think of the sapient ¡MAYDAY! lyrics, "When it's all said and done, we aren't out here long. Better get your feet wet". We are already one week down, and there's just one week left to put the past year's work into action. I now have to assimilate all the lessons I've learned over the past week, grow from them, and play more like a seasoned veteran if I want to help contribute to our goal of qualifying for Qatar.

The story really begins on Monday, June 23, and the rest is still unwritten…


More information on the Pan American Handball Championships can be found on the Pan American Handball website, and streaming of the games is available at the Uruguayan Handball Federation website ($10 USD for full access or $5/day access).