Drew Donlin competes for USA Team Handball.
Ty Reed was with his wife in Washington, D.C., when he woke up to a long string of text messages from the other players on the U.S. men’s handball team.
Reed’s teammates were celebrating some good news, but he wasn’t sure what had happened. So he scrolled to the beginning of the conversation and read a text message from U.S. coach Robert Hedin.
Hedin had read on the International Handball Federation’s website that the Americans had been selected to represent North America and the Caribbean at the 2021 IHF Men’s World Championship in Egypt.
Hedin then sent a text message to the entire team — which is currently scattered across the globe — to share the news.
“I think we’ve earned it,” Hedin said last week from Norway. “We have played a lot of good games and (had) good effort the last three years and good improvement in the team, so I think we have a solid team now. So this is something to build on for the future.”
This is only the seventh time that the U.S. men’s handball team has earned a berth to the world championship since 1964 — and its first invitation since 2001. It comes at a particularly exciting time for the Americans.
They’re adjusting to a new system that Hedin implemented when he was hired as the U.S. men’s handball coach in 2018. The team has a revamped roster made up of both American-born players and dual citizens competing in Europe, which is considered the breeding ground for the world’s best handball talent.
Hedin and his players believe the world championship, which runs Jan. 13-31, 2021, will give them a great opportunity to compete on a large international stage — especially with Los Angeles set to host the 2028 Olympics.
“I think we’re realistic that we’re maybe not a medal team (at the world championship), but I think we have a good shot at surprising some people because a lot of people in the handball world just kind of look the other way when the U.S. is there,” said Drew Donlin, who plays pivot on the U.S. team.
“They don’t really take us seriously, so hopefully we can turn some heads.”
The Americans don’t have a tradition of winning at the world championship. They finished in 24th place, aka last, the last time they qualified in 2001, and they were put in a difficult group for next year’s event with Austria, France and Norway.
“I want to send a great team (in) 2028 to the Olympics when we’re hosting. I think the best way to do that is to just go out firing,” Reed said. “We have a chance to play France, which is a top team in the world, on the biggest stage in the world.
“Win or lose, we need to go out and show we’re here to compete and that the direction of USA Handball is shifting from what it’s known for in the past to the direction that it’s heading now. I think it’s more of a mindset and kind of tempo change for everyone to see that USA is heading places.”
There was some doubt about whether the U.S. team would make the world championship after its qualification tournament was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The IHF was forced to choose a team for the spot in the world championship. The Americans ended up getting the nod because of several factors, including that the U.S. is considered important to the worldwide development and exposure of handball.
Fielding a competitive team hasn’t always been easy, though.
When Hedin took over as the U.S. coach, he started looking for players for a home-and-away series against Canada to qualify for the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. The coach eventually expanded his search beyond the U.S. In Europe, he found players with dual citizenship and American passports who were eligible to play for the U.S. men’s team.
“The future is not only dual citizens,” said Hedin, who earned Olympic silver medals as a player for his native Sweden in 1992 and ’96. “The future has to be the sport growing in the States.”
Hedin said around 5-6 players on the team were raised in the U.S., with the rest of the squad made up of overseas players who have dual citizenship.
In addition, Staffan Olsson, a four-time Olympian who was Hedin’s teammate on the Swedish handball team, joined the U.S. team as its high performance director.
“For Ty and I, we’re kind of the only true American guys on the team right now, guys who like grew up in the U.S. and basically spent our whole lives there,” Donlin said. “So it’s kind of fun for us. We joke about it, but it’s a cool thing to be apart of for sure.”
Donlin is living in Spain at the moment and playing in his second professional season for the Abanca Ademar León club team. His American teammates are also spread out around the world, playing for club teams in other countries.
Barring any issues with the coronavirus, Hedin said the plan is for the team to reunite in January and prepare for the world championship with a training camp in Norway. They’ll then head to Egypt to face the world’s best.
“To be on one of the highest stages outside of the Olympics, especially with the Olympic Games in 2028 coming up, I mean this is a huge stepping stone for the exposure (of handball) within America,” Reed said.