USA Team Handball caught up with 1984 and 1988 Olympian Sherry Winn, who first was introduced to handball in college after quitting basketball. She was scouted by the national team head coach, later moving to New Jersey and the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid to start training full-time.
Winn went on to compete in a number of international tournaments, world championships, Pan American Games and two Olympic Games. After her handball career, she coached college women’s basketball for 23 years across three different university programs, winning various conference and national championships. Winn, a three-time Amazon best-selling author, now works as a leadership speaker and consultant, and runs her business, The Winning Leadership Company.
Take a look at our Q&A below to learn more about Winn, her handball memories and the years since her athletic career:
Give us a brief overview of what life looks like for you nowadays:
SW: Currently, I live in a place called Fishtail, Montana, which is in the middle of nowhere and perfect for me. It has about 25 people in total and is beautiful. I look out my window and see the Beartooth Mountains. It’s very peaceful out here and feels very serene.
I coached basketball at the college level for 23 years, and in 2012, I decided to make a shift into something new. I jumped into this idea of motivational speaking and created The Winning Leadership Company. My goal is to help leaders transform their companies into winning cultures and teach them how to do that.
I do seminars and workshops on stage, and consulting for businesses, especially for company leaders. It’s not just being on the stage with 14,000 people in the audience – sometimes it’s a group as small as 10. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me. It has been an incredible journey and a lot of fun.
When did you move to Montana? How has the pandemic situation affected your business?
SW: When I quit coaching in 2012, I moved to Billings. I lived there for about a year and a half before I moved out to Fishtail and into this beautiful log house. It’s 40 acres of land with a little piece of creek in front of it and a view of the mountains. I am very blessed and lucky to find this space. It just fits with who I am and it gives me that space to connect with nature, silence, the birds and the wind.
With the pandemic, there are no live conferences and a lot of them might not return until 2021, or 2022, so that is a little challenging. But I’ve been doing leadership consulting webinars, so I have still been able to meet with leaders to coach and teach them. The challenge with that is the energy is different. When you are live, you can read people. You know when to divert or increase the energy. It’s okay with webinars, but the energy level is different.
How did you first get into handball?
SW: It was really interesting. I was playing college basketball at the time, and it was a really challenging time in my life. I quit the team, despite leading the team in scoring and assists. I didn’t like myself and was bringing a lot of that negativity to the team, so I ended up walking away. As a result, I had nothing to do. So, a classmate came up to me and said ‘you should play team handball, it’s this really great sport’ and I responded, ‘I don’t like racquetball’, thinking it was the game where you hit a ball against a wall with your hand.
But they had a handball club team at Texas A&M University, so I went to a club practice and thought, ‘this is really cool, you get to hit people. It’s a physical sport!’ At that time, I was so angry, so it was perfect! If I had never quit basketball, that door never would have opened and I never would have played team handball. But because that door had been shut, it allowed me to see this other door and accomplish what I always wanted to do, which is become an Olympian. It was really divinely and purposefully done. I don’t think it was a coincidence.
At one point, the club team told me they were going to New York City for a tournament, and invited me. The U.S. national team coach saw me play there, and asked me to join the Sports Festival team, which is where they select the U.S. Women’s National Team. I didn’t even know I had been picked. It wasn’t until a teammate, Cindy Stinger, asked me if I was going to the national team meeting, that I realized that I had been selected for the national team when our coach had asked if I wanted to move to New Jersey.
So I almost missed the national team meeting I didn’t even know about. That is how I joined USA Team Handball. I think it was destiny – I was so fortunate, my teammates from 1981 to 1984 were the most wonderful mentors. I respected them and learned so much from them. And to this day, I still value those people.
So you relocated to New Jersey in order to join the U.S. National Team. How was the experience training there?
SW: The first group of us moved into this one little house. It started with seven women, then became nine, then 13. It was an interesting time to share that small space with each other. I loved it, being there with all of them. We had such a great time. I think it was 1983 that they moved us all to the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid.
What a great experience! We were meeting winter athletes, we got a little more living space. It was just phenomenal! We didn’t have the best training facilities...I remember our weight room was just one universal machine in the basement. We didn’t get paid, we were all poor, but we all found ways to laugh. We always found things to do outside of practice, it was incredible.
When I hear other teams talk, I don’t think they necessarily had our cohesion because I don’t think they had those challenges to drive them to be together. I would have never changed anything that we experienced. It was so incredibly beautiful and drew us as a unit together.
Are you still involved with the handball community and in touch with your handball teammates?
SW: Before the United States Olympians and Paralympians Association (USOPA) started doing their reunions, we had informal reunions where we would all get together. 1984 was a special team, I don’t know how many times we’ve had reunions, but we have all gotten together quite a few times. When some of my teammates have gotten married, I’m the first one on the plane to share that experience with them. That closeness is still there. I can still think about the funny things that happened and the deep conversations we had. They were all so willing to support me in so many different ways. I think I appreciate them even more now that I can look back and reflect on everything.
What are some of the fondest memories you have from your handball career?
SW: Winning the 1987 Pan American Games was huge. It was in Indianapolis, and the arena was jam-packed. If we lost in this Pan American Games, then we weren’t going to the 1988 Olympics. There wasn’t even less support back then for team handball, so a lot of us had to have parental support, or some type of financial support. We were doing whatever we could to keep playing, and were really feeling the pressure, knowing that this could be our last game ever.
We were playing the gold medal game against the Canadians. We had already beat them once and we had to win this game. We were down four points at halftime and were just falling apart, there was just so much pressure. But it ended up being a comeback victory – we scored at the last possible second to win the gold medal. The fans erupted, the team erupted. It was just that feeling of euphoria that you get. Right after us, the men won and it was just crazy, two back-to-back, edge of your seat games. That is a highlight for sure.
There are some memories that were kind of horrible, but I can laugh about them now. I barely knew how to play the game when I went to my first World Championship in 198. We got slaughtered, I think our very first game was against Hungary and the score was 5-27. It was my first concept of how far we were behind these other countries and how much we still had to grow and learn. But it took a lot of courage for our team to go out there and fight despite getting annihilated. That’s where I learned courage, tenacity, perseverance and other intangibles.
Do you feel like you apply any parts of your handball experience or the Olympic values in your current life?
SW: Team handball really impacted the way I coached, and how I think as a leader too. I knew that with coaching young women for 23 years, it wasn’t just about basketball. If I just taught them skills in those four years that they would never use again, it would be a waste.
If I could teach them a life skill or something they could use forever, then I would have actually done something. That mindset came from team handball, especially from my teammates that were so phenomenal. I learned so much from there and it really helped me formulate the way that I talked and the way that I coached, knowing that this was the opportunity that I could give an athlete something that could impact their lives forever.
Where would you like to see the sport go in the next few years, especially leading up to the LA 2028 Olympic Games?
SW: If we don’t ever have a grassroots effort, if we don’t get into schools and colleges, it's not going to work. We have to put some extra energy into the grassroots effort. I would also love to see more American coaches. Yes, you need to know the X’s and O’s of the sport – but more importantly, you need to understand the people. I learned a great lesson from my father before I started coaching. I asked him, ‘what offense should I run?’ and he said, ‘it doesn’t matter what offense you run, it matters if you can get the people to run the offense.’ You need coaches who understand how we function as American athletes and how our sports system works.
We have a real opportunity in 2028! We have to take athletes right now in their late teens and early 20s who could be ready in eight years. I do believe that great things can happen. Handball in America can grow, it’s so wonderful and fun. It is the type of sport that Americans can really grasp, jump into and love. I think with the right people in the right positions, miracles can occur. With great leadership, incredible advances can occur.
What sort of advice would you give to USA Team Handball’s athletes who are currently at home and unable to compete due to Covid-19?
SW: This is a great time to delve into mindset and psychological things, as well as build communication and conflict resolution skills. These things can really kill a team in tough scenarios. The first thing I would do if I was a coach would be to set up calls every week, with individual athletes and also provide specific training advice. You have to use your imagination and develop athletes, even though they can’t be together in person. To me, there is a limitless number of things you could be doing right now to build an incredible team going forward.
Athletes are currently going through the challenge of thinking they would be playing and training together, and then suddenly being unable to do that. But there are some ways you can still grow and learn right now. Don’t let the opportunity of that pass you by while you are upset that an anticipated thing isn’t happening. Just enjoy that challenge. This thing that is occurring now is giving you that opportunity for growth.