USA Team Handball caught up with 1996 Olympian Dave DeGraaf, who first discovered handball at the United States Air Force Academy, where he had been recruited to play football and basketball. DeGraaf tried out handball instead, and went on to play for the U.S. Men’s National Team from 1994 to 1999 and compete in the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. DeGraaf also earned USA Team Handball’s Male Athlete of the Year award multiple times.
Take a look at our Q&A below to learn more about DeGraaf, his handball memories and the years since his athletic career:
Give us a brief overview of what life looks like for you nowadays:
DD: My family and I are living in Hudsonville, Michigan. I’m the President and CEO of Gill Industries, a global supplier headquartered in Grand Rapids that produces predominantly automotive parts.
My wife, Michelle, and I have two sons — both are in high school as a senior and a junior. I'm 6’8 and my wife's 6'2, so our boys have the height and size gene. My older son is deciding where he's going to go to college, he's got several scholarship offers to play basketball. My younger son is an offensive lineman for football and has several offers already for college too. We have two dogs, we recently got a fox red pointing lab puppy during this quarantine, and we have an older lab mix.
We're avid boaters and live on a lake so we get out on the water as much as we can. One of the two hobbies that I'm looking forward to getting into more are pheasant hunting and fishing for steelhead trout. But our sons also keep us busy, between their sports and activities.
How did you first get into handball?
DD: I was recruited to play football and basketball at the Air Force Academy and then fell into handball as an intramural sport, then eventually as a club sport when the Air Force Handball Club invited me to play with them. At that time, the U.S. National Team was training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Some of those guys would come work out with the Air Force team and help us with the the fundamentals of the game. Eventually they asked me to go to the training center and practice with them. I'd get down there as often as I could.
By the time I graduated, the coach asked me to join the national team. I'd already had orders from the Air Force to go to Minot, North Dakota as my first assignment. The national team moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and when I was at Minot, my unit was actually shut down. I was able to get a job at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, two hours south of Atlanta.
I’d work night shifts at the base from 6 PM to 6 AM Saturday to Monday, then get up Tuesday morning and drive two hours to make it to the morning practice. We would do two practices a day from Tuesday to Friday and I’d crash on my teammates’ couches, and then, after a three-hour scrimmage on Saturday, I’d jump in my truck and head back down to the base for another 12-hour shift. Eventually the Air Force found out what I was doing and they moved me to Atlanta, where my primary job was to train and compete for the 1996 Olympics.
How did you first get into your current career track/profession?
DD: After the Pan American Games, the Air Force called and said, we want to get you back in your career field and you can continue training in handball as well. They wanted to move us to Little Rock, Arkansas.
We took a step back and I knew some people in the automotive business in West Michigan. We decided to explore that option, so I did some interviews and that's when I separated active duty and went into the reserves for the Air Force. When I started my civilian career in the automotive business, that was in November of 1999, with Johnson Controls.
That was my first job after I hung up my shoes with handball. After 15 years with Johnson Controls, I then moved to Indiana and was working for the automotive supplier Faurecia.
Are you still involved with the handball community and in touch with your handball teammates?
DD: Yes! We try to get together every five years. At the 10-year mark after the Olympics, we really did a concerted effort to get as much of the team back as possible. Unfortunately I missed the last one, but there's a lot of guys from the ’96 team that still live in Atlanta.
Atlanta seems to be a hub that's easy to get to and has a higher concentration of the team. We still keep track of each other through all the social media. Around the holidays, we get all their Christmas cards and I make those phone calls to that core group to catch up. Time flies, for sure.
What are some of your favorite memories from the Olympics?
DD: There's a lot of fond memories. I think the Olympic experience could fill books. The team went to the University of South Carolina a month or two ahead of the Olympic Games. We brought the Netherlands' team in to spar against. I remember going up to block a shot, twisting my right ankle, and getting dragged off the court. There was a tennis ball-sized swelling under my skin and I immediately thought my Olympic dreams were gone.
But I got back to Atlanta and started serious rehab therapy with the doctors. When we were walking in the Opening Ceremony, I was still being supported by my teammates on either side of me, so we could keep up with the procession of athletes. Once I got in the stadium, a lot of that dissipated because you see the flash of the cameras from everywhere.
Our two wins against Kuwait and Algeria were great memories as well. I scored 13 goals in the match against Kuwait and scored the game-winning goal against Algeria with no time left in overtime. We got Algeria’s defense spread out and I was able to get a shot over the top of them. The goalkeeper hit it with his hand and it went into the upper left corner of the goal, giving us the win with no time left on the clock. When new people come over to our house and find out I was in the Olympics, my kids always say, ’Dad, tell them about the Algeria game!’
Do you feel like you apply any parts of your Olympic experience or Olympic values in your current life?
DD: Absolutely. I think the dedication to your profession and the desire to be the best that you can be, those are still very much present in my life. Along with the aspect of teamwork — I often tell people that when I conduct interviews, 99 times out of 100, I can tell who came from a team sport. Just demonstrating selfless behavior, watching out for your teammate and making sure that the project gets done.
Working with people is another thing. There were very diverse backgrounds on the national team. Similar to my experience with the military, you get thrown in with a lot of different people, perspectives and theories. You really learn and respect who they are and what makes them tick.
Anytime I call up one of my teammates, inevitably most of the conversation will be about, 'do you remember this?’ It’s just that bond. I tell my teams that I work with: the harder the project, the better the memories that come out of it. What easy project do you have memories from? You go through adversity, weather the storm and realize what you can accomplish as a team.
Where would you like to see the sport go in the next few years, especially leading up to the LA 2028 Olympic Games?
DD: I hope that with the increased connectivity and social media nowadays, we can grow the sport. When the Olympic Channel had featured handball for a week, I'd get texts from neighbors like, ‘oh we just watched handball, it's such a cool sport! What's going on with it these days?’
I know there's a lot of challenges that the sport faces and there's a lot of opinions out there with where the focus should be...from youth and grassroots development, to national teams. I think there has to be some type of blend. You need that recognition of what it can culminate into, but then you need the grassroots to eventually feed into programs.
It's a difficult equation. But it’s also exciting to read the updates and all the ways that USA Team Handball is trying to reach out and gain exposure, revenue and membership.
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?
DD: My two sons are in the same situation and aren’t able to practice their sports. We moved our weights into the garage and they're in there, working out and making sure they challenge each other to stay in shape. They want to come out of this stronger than when they went into it.
Just because we are forced to shelter in place doesn't mean that you have to shelter your athletic development and strength and conditioning. It would be a shame for somebody to say, I really lost my cardio or my strength because of Covid-19 during these last few months. It's exciting to see what some of these guys are doing in their break from a national team standpoint — I’ve seen those clips of our athletes working out at home. I hope they're all doing it because once this releases, that could be a differentiator that could provide an advantage down the road.