USA Team Handball caught up with 1996 Olympian Jennifer Demby, who first was introduced to handball at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell while playing for their basketball team.
Demby tried to mimic some of the handball moves she saw on an introductory video. She later flew to Colorado Springs for a tryout and was good enough to join the national team upon graduation. Demby spent over four years in total at the Olympic Training Centers in Colorado Springs and Lake Placid. After an ACL injury, she became an alternate for the 1992 Olympic team and later was named to the 1996 Olympic team.
Take a look at our Q&A below to learn more about Demby, her handball memories and the years since her athletic career:
Give us a brief overview of what life looks like for you nowadays:
JD: My life has been busy since I moved back to New Jersey from Georgia. I am a 12-year cancer survivor, and I’m feeling incredibly grateful, healthy, happy, blessed. I am back at home with my sister helping to take care of our 87-year-old mother together. I am an Instructor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and I teach a course called, ‘Movement Experience for Individuals with Disabilities’. I am also an Instructional Aide and Fitness Instructor at a training center for the blind.
Additionally, I co-founded Blind Athletes Inc, a 501© (3) non-profit sports organization for blind and vision impaired athletes in 2016. I serve as Director of Sports and Head Coach of our para athletic team and I am immensely proud of several of our athletes achieving national records. Over the last four years, competing in and out of state, many individuals have participated in multiple sports events with our club.
We currently have around 22 athletes that participate on a regular basis in multiple adaptive sports for the blind, like track and field, beep baseball, swimming, and road races like 5K’s and half marathons. I have guided my athletes in numerous 5K races and completed two half marathons along with them as well. I am thankful for the people who have volunteered their time with our organization in many different aspects including as guide walkers and guide runners.
How did you first get into your current career track/profession?
JD: The sports club started with one athlete who had a desire to run. Being severely vision-impaired, she needed to run with a guide. Then it blossomed into two athletes and three athletes. The whole idea behind our club is to create happiness through adaptive sports and to help them bring out the champion in themselves. Whether they are competitive or recreational, we invite them to the club and have a great time with different sports.
Last summer it was extremely exciting to have our first athlete, Jasmine Murrell, selected to the 2019 Parapan American Games Team competing in Lima, Peru for the 100-meter and long jump. That was a huge accomplishment. When we first met, I told her that my goal was to pay it forward and have her one-day experience walking in an Opening Ceremony and competing internationally. The next goal is to help her qualify for and hopefully be selected to compete at the Paralympic Games.
How did you first get into handball?
JD: Sports came about when I was younger because I was tall and expected to follow my siblings who were also tall and played multiple sports, especially basketball. So of course, everyone suggested I play basketball, which I did. It led to me being scouted as I got older. I ended up picking UMASS Lowell (at the time, it was Lowell University). While I was there, the Athletic Director, Dr. Wayne Edwards, informed us about handball, this sport that I had never heard of, and showed us a video. I thought I should try practicing these things that I saw on this video. So, I would go down to the wrestling room in our gym and try to mimic the goalie moves.
Three of us from the women’s and men’s basketball teams went to Colorado to try out. I was not really getting the gist of the court with the three steps, but when I got in the goal, it felt like basketball shot blocking. That is where I felt most comfortable. They liked what I did, so I agreed to come back after I graduated. The team lived and trained mainly at the Colorado Springs Training Center for a few years and at the Lake Placid Training Center for a few months before moving to Atlanta. I think I counted 13 different countries that we traveled to playing handball. We competed in Olympic Festivals, Nationals, World Championships, and got a gold medal at the Pan American Games in 1995.
What are some of your favorite memories from the Olympics?
JD: There are so many memories. Celebrating at Planet Hollywood after being selected for the1996 team, walking into the stadium for the opening ceremony, attending the closing ceremony, and going to the White House were memorable. Most of all, spending time with my family at Centennial Olympic Park. Several of my family members drove down to Georgia in this huge red van to support me.
My brother built a mock Olympic flame and sign in our front yard, and it would light up at night. He also made me a scrapbook with all my Olympic photos and newspaper stories. And all the African American athletes competing in the Olympics that year were also featured in Jet Magazine. It was cool having our names noted in there.
Are you still in touch with your teammates or involved in the sport in any way?
JD: Yes, and I even saw several teammates at the Olympian and Paralympian Alumni Reunion in 2016. I would like to keep involved with USA Team Handball, if I could continue to help the current and future athletes in any way.
Do you feel like you apply any parts of your Olympic experience or the Olympic values in your current life?
JD: Yes definitely. I still apply proper training, discipline, concentration, perseverance, and sportsmanship in my current life activities. All of which transfer over into helping my blind and vision impaired athletes when they are training and participating in adaptive sports.
I teach my athletes how to pick themselves up after a mistake and move forward, and to motivate and encourage each other. Transferring happiness into sports is also something that I try to instill in my athletes daily. The best thing for me is to see the joy and elation on their face when they finish a race or receive an award.
Where would you like to see the sport go in the next few years, especially leading up to the LA 2028 Olympic Games?
JD: I would love to see team handball become as popular as soccer and to also see more women playing. It would be exciting for our country to have more of a familiarity with the sport. I do find that there are more people who know about the sport nowadays. Beach handball has been taking off as well, so that is fantastic. I think Americans would find team handball to be an extremely exciting sport with more advertising and a television presence.
What sort of advice would you give to USA Team Handball’s national team athletes who are currently at home and unable to compete due to Covid-19?
JD: I would say, try and use this time to reboot. This is a time when you can refresh and renew your mind, learn new things, assess your current goals, challenge yourself, and of course, maintain exercise. Maybe try some meditation. Talk to your family and friends that you have not had a chance to talk to when you are too busy training. Take care of yourself, include laughter, smile, and be positive.