Michael Lee poses for a photo in his USA Team Handball jersey.
Life has prepared Michael Lee to take an international perspective, even before he made the USA Team Handball men’s national team in 2018.
Growing up in Alabama, he earned an International Baccalaureate diploma at Auburn High School. Several years earlier in the 1980s, his parents, Mingkuo and Wendy Lee, had moved to the U.S. from Taiwan. Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which is in May, carries a deep meaning for Lee and his sister, Tammy, who are first generation Asian Americans.
“My family heritage is something that is important to me, and I am proud to be both Asian and American,” Lee told TeamUSA.org.
Now team handball has sent Lee overseas in a different direction.
After growing up in Auburn, Alabama, and playing baseball into college, Lee is now in Germany, a hotbed of team handball, playing for HSG Siebengebirge in the country’s fourth division and working toward an eventual Olympic berth with Team USA.
“I am very thankful for my family, friends, teammates and coaches who have supported me along my journey,” said Lee, who, when not in the handball arena, is a software developer at the LIMES Institute, which is a biomedical research center at the University of Bonn.
“Playing competitive sports has taught me many invaluable lessons and introduced me to cultures and people from around the world.”
Although the coronavirus pandemic ended the 2019-20 German season early, the new season is scheduled to begin in September.
Lee proudly wears No. 20 on his jersey for HSG Siebengebirge, which is significant because 20 is the age he actually began playing team handball.
Michael Lee prepares to throw a ball during a team handball match.
“Wearing the No. 20 also reminds me that it’s not too late to start something new in life,” Lee, who turned 24 in February, said via email from Germany.
His story is evidence of that.
After finishing up his sophomore baseball season in 2016 at the University of Rochester in New York, Lee returned to his hometown to complete his undergraduate studies at Auburn University. While volunteering in a biomechanics lab, he met women’s team handball national team players Sarah Gascon and Jence Rhoads, who told Lee what the sport was all about.
He trained under former U.S. national coach Javier Garcia Cuesta and also Mark Ortega, eventually joining up with the USA Team Handball Residency Program at Auburn, and soon he was hooked.
“Although I had never played handball before, they really believed in me and were eager to teach me how to play,” Lee said.
Lee made the junior national team in 2016, moved up to the senior national team in 2018 and later that year helped the U.S. to a first-place finish in a Pan American Games qualifier against Canada in Montreal.
And all those years in baseball certainly helped, said Lee, who also ran cross-country in high school.
“Although handball is a unique sport with its own set of required skills, baseball absolutely helped me learn to play handball,” Lee said. “Baseball players have great throwing and catching abilities, which is one of the important fundamentals for handball. So that was a good starting point for me.”
The new sport could even lead to the Olympics.
Although the U.S. didn’t qualify for the Tokyo Games, the Olympic Games Paris 2024 are just four years away and the U.S. is already guaranteed a spot in the Olympic Games Los Angeles 2028 as the host country. The U.S. has not qualified for the Olympics since the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996, making the Olympic tournament as host country and finishing ninth.
“The Olympic dream is very much alive for my teammates and me,” Lee said. “Our dream to compete in the Olympic Games is one of the reasons why we work so hard. Many of my teammates and I have dedicated our lives to this sport. Putting all of our efforts into training, finding teams, moving to new countries, learning new languages, working, studying and being away from family show our dedication to this dream.”
In Europe, the world of handball is intense. Walk around Auburn, Alabama, and you’ll see football and baseball. Walk around Bonn, Germany, and it’s handball and soccer.
“Handball in Europe is equivalent to football, basketball and baseball in the states,” Lee said. “Kids are playing from a very young age and a lot of the best athletes are playing handball. In Germany, it is the most popular sport after soccer, so it is very well supported and known here. Naturally, the level of play is much higher and more intense than in the U.S.”