Drew Donlin competes during the Gjensidige Cup ahead of the 2023 IHF World Championships in Trondheim, Norway.
The sport of handball combines the speed and agility of basketball, the physicality of football, and the arm talent of baseball into one fast-paced, indoor sport. The rules boil down to this: two teams of six players attempt to hurl a small, soccer-like ball into a 3-meter wide by 2-meter tall net. In the way stands a wall of physical, rugby-built athletes. You may pass and run (players with the ball must dribble after three steps) to create angles for shots. But, you must score outside of a six-meter crease that protects the goalkeeper and their net. You may jump into the crease. But, you must release the ball before landing, making athletic, gravity-defying shots common in matches.
Yet, despite this, the U.S. has trailed in the world handball scene compared to European and North African countries, where the sport is vastly popular. In fact, the U.S. has not qualified for the Olympics since they were given an automatic spot for the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996.
However, the Americans are catching up.
For the first time in 22 years, the men’s national team qualified for the International Handball Federation (IHF) World Championship in Sweden and Poland. It is a feat that resides near the halfway mark of their proposed 10-year plan to become quality contenders when Los Angeles hosts the Games in 2028.
Some of that plan’s responsibility lies on the shoulders of team captain, Ian Hüter. In terms of handball experience on Team USA, Hüter has had a head start. The 25-year-old grew up in Germany, home to one of the top handball leagues in the world.
“It’s definitely an honor,” Hüter said of being Captain and trying to grow the sport. “It’s really crazy that we can actually say that we’re playing at Worlds. I mean, I started in 2018 with Team USA, and I can tell you that we weren’t ready for Worlds then.”
Hüter stated he started playing handball at six or seven, but also “could’ve started even earlier” had he not lived in San Francisco, California for two years.
“I wouldn’t say I started late,” he added. “But there are other kids that start at four or five (years old.”
Compare that to longtime Team USA line player Drew Donlin, who picked up the sport at the U.S. Air Force Academy after he did not make the college’s football team after walk-on tryouts.
“I went to the tryout and ended up getting cut,” he began. “And then at the Air Force Academy, there are a ton of club sports…So I looked down the list of club sports and saw handball. I didn’t know what it was and thought it looked pretty cool.”
His small interest opened up an entire world of possibilities, as Donlin immediately fell in love with the European sport. His first coach, Mike Cavanaugh, was a former national team member and allowed Donlin to explore his interests further.
When Donlin got stationed in Los Angeles, he continued to play handball and even picked up the sport of beach handball. Currently, he pulls triple duty, balancing life as a player on both the U.S.indoor and beach handball squads and as a Captain in the United States Space Force. Donlin is one of the few players that does not play the sport of handball full time, which can have its difficulties.
“From 2018-2021, I was in the Air Force World Class Athlete Program,” he said. “It was a really cool opportunity to play overseas. So I was playing professionally in Germany and Spain.
“But part of that program is that you are a full-time airman or Army soldier. So, once that ‘21 cycle was up, I had to come back and go back to my regular job.”