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Water Polo Olympian Chay Lapin Leads Newly-Formed Beach Handball Team To Success

By Doug Williams | April 14, 2016, 4:18 p.m. (ET)

Members of the U.S. beach handball team pose with their gold medals at the 2016 Pan American Beach Handball Championship on April 2, 2016 in Vargas, Venezuela.

There were many times in recent months that Chay Lapin and his teammates had to stop practicing on Southern California’s Hermosa Beach to answer the same question, over and over:

“What the heck are you guys playing?”

The sport was team handball — an Olympic sport especially popular in northern Europe — but it was a modified beach version of the game played on a sand court. It’s a fast-paced, four-on-four game with non-stop action and running, leaping players firing shots at a goal with a ball slightly smaller than a volleyball.

Lapin, like most of his teammates, was learning the game on the fly for the USA Beach Handball Elite Men’s Team. The former UCLA water polo goaltender — who was on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team in London — was recruited to the team less than six months ago by his former Bruins teammate Jeff Smith.

The U.S. beach team handball program is in its infancy and Lapin, 29, is one of several athletes recruited from water polo and other sports to learn the game and help the United States get some exposure and success.

They accomplished one step in that mission the first week in April when the team survived a rocky start to win the Pan American Beach Handball Championship in Venezuela, defeating traditionally strong Uruguay in the final. The victory gives the U.S. team a berth in the 16-nation world championships in July in Budapest.

It was a surprising outcome to Lapin, considering he and his teammates are still learning all the rules and nuances of the game.

“To be honest, myself included, probably about half of us still don’t quite understand all the different rules,” Lapin said. “There were definitely times in games where a call was called and we literally had no idea what was going on.”

Lapin laughed about the experience, but it was a serious step up for the U.S. program, which defeated host Venezuela — one of the best teams in South America, where beach handball is a more established sport — before upsetting Uruguay.

Both victories came on shootouts. Under beach team handball rules, each match consists of two 10-minute periods. If one team wins both periods, it wins the match. If the teams split the periods a tie-breaking shootout period is played.

Chay Lapin, pictured here playing water polo, recently joined the U.S. beach handball team.

One of the reasons for Team USA’s success was Lapin, whose years of experience as an elite-level water polo goaltender, athleticism, 6-foot-5 size and approach helped shut down opponents.

“Chay was definitely the best goalkeeper in the Pan Am competition and was a big factor in our winning,” said U.S. coach Michael Hinson. On offense, Hinson said Jacob Garcia, a former member of the U.S. national junior team handball team, was the key playmaker.

Dennis Berkholtz, the director of USA Beach Handball, said Lapin was a difference-maker because of his calm demeanor and aggressive approach in goal. Berkholtz said Lapin often challenged shooters as they approached, cutting off shooting angles.

“He closes the mouth of the goal up by attacking the shooter as opposed to sitting back in the goal,” he said.

Plus, he said Lapin wasn’t rattled, even while allowing multiple goals in each period, because that’s the nature of the sport. It’s not like soccer or water polo where a goaltender only allows a few balls to get past each game. Team handball is high-scoring, with keepers defending goals approximately 10 feet wide by 6½-feet tall.

“You’ve got to hang in there and not be offended by the fact a couple of balls have gone by you,” Berkholtz said.

Since retiring from the U.S. water polo team in 2013, Lapin married and settled into a career working for a private-equity firm in Los Angeles. He decided to try the new sport as a way to get back into shape and be part of something new. He’s had to learn to use his feet to block shots — something that didn’t come into play in water polo — but his aggressive approach is something he brings from the pool.

When Lapin first watched video of top beach handball goalies, he noticed most didn’t try to jump out to cut off angles and stop shooters. He knew from experience that was the way he needed to play.

Plus, he said, his opponents weren’t used to that and were “caught off guard.”

Now Lapin is looking forward to the team’s trip to the world championships to see where the Americans stand. He said it’s been a fun transition into beach handball.

“The biggest change was just getting back into something, because for the last two or three years I’ve just been sitting at a desk for the majority (of time), so it’s actually fun to get back into something like this,” he said.

“It’s not at a super-high level yet, but I think it’s going to get there. We have the World Beach Games next year (in San Diego) that are going to be huge, a big platform. That’ll be a good boost for our sport.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Chay Lapin