While the majority of his teammates train in sunny Southern California, USA Beach Handball’s Bill Johnson can be found on another continent, running by monks in prayer at a monastery and villagers herding their yaks and sheep.
The 33-year-old is in his fifth year of coaching basketball on the Tibetan plateaus, where he started up a basketball program and team in the community. His efforts are the subject of a documentary entitled “Ritoma”, directed by Oscar-winner Ruby Yang, and Johnson estimates he has traveled to Tibet around 20 to 30 times at this point.
“Being 6'8, it's a test of your willpower when you're on those small planes. If you can survive those 12-hour flights, you can survive anything,” the Men’s National Team athlete said, who splits his time between Tibet, Los Angeles for handball and his home in Seattle. “But I've come to love the long planes and bus rides. You're limited to what you can do, so it’s a good time to just relax and breathe.”
Johnson is no stranger to traveling to faraway lands for sport. He played professional basketball in countries like Costa Rica, Iceland and Cape Verde, first learning about handball in Iceland, where his basketball team practiced in the same gym as the handball team.
“The [handball players] would joke around with us and tell us to ‘come play a real man's sport’.” Johnson said.
Iceland was also where Johnson met Jence Rhoads, another American basketball player. Upon returning to the States, he saw on social media that Rhoads had transitioned to handball and would soon go on to become a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team.
With handball still fresh on his mind, Johnson reached out to the San Francisco CalHeat Team Handball Club and joined a practice that same day. He later joined the Auburn University residency program for USA Team Handball and took part in a beach handball tournament in Gulf Shores, Alabama. It was his first exposure to beach handball.
“I was having some arm problems learning to throw the ball right; having played basketball, I hadn't thrown in a while. But when I was playing beach, that's when the event organizers told me ‘you're actually more suited for beach’,” Johnson said, who competed on behalf of Team USA at the 2019 ANOC World Beach Games last October.
“That stayed on my mind when [beach handball teammate] Ebiye Udo-Udoma told me they were starting a beach handball program in Los Angeles. I thought if Ebiye went down and tried out, I would go and try out too.”
Johnson was selected as one of the original members of the beach program, winning gold in Venezuela at their first international competition, the 2016 Pan American Beach Handball Championships.
The program’s rapid success has earned both the women and the men a spot at the Beach Handball World Championships in Pescara, Italy, this June.
“I'm realizing how special of a program this is, and how the future of the sport has so much potential. We had no idea what we were doing but we found a way to win it back in 2016,” Johnson said. “We were the new kids on the block, and that gave us an edge because we came in with such an open mind towards everything. It was a really cool way to start things with this team.”
Although he doesn’t spend his entire year training with the team, Johnson says his two lives — the one on the sand with Team USA and the one on the plains of Tibet — elevate one another.
“They’re two very different places and very stark situations. One's on the beach and one's up 11,000 feet high on this plateau, but it’s been really interesting learning from both experiences,” Johnson said.
“Both have really enhanced the other. The altitude training, green space exercising, mindfulness and training in the elements that I am doing in Tibet can help a lot with handball. I’ve been taking those things and bringing them as much as I can onto the sand and with the handball team.”
With many years of a sports career under his belt already, Johnson said he wants to get the program to the next level, and continue helping the sport that gave him so many great experiences competing around the world and connecting with so many individuals from other cultures, backgrounds and walks of life.
“My hope is that we get newer, younger guys to come play. I would love to keep playing as long as I can, but I want to do whatever I can, whatever I have left in my body to help them get to the next level,” Johnson said.
“I'm just really thankful for beach handball and what it's done for me in the sense of learning about the world through sport; I really hope younger generations can get involved because beach handball is a great way to learn about and connect with our brothers and sisters from all over the world. That, for me, is the coolest thing in doing all of this. You just don't see that that often and I think now, more than ever, no matter what's going on in the world, those kind of things are really special.”