USA Team Handball caught up with 1984 and 1988 Olympian Bill Kessler, who logged a long and incredibly accomplished career as a goalkeeper, competing in over 200 international matches. Kessler represented Team USA in two Pan American Games, four World Championships, a Junior World Championships and two Olympic Games.
Since his athletic career, Kessler went on to develop a number of successful businesses in Indianapolis, where he currently resides with his family. Take a look at our Q&A below to learn more about Kessler, his handball memories and the years since his athletic career:
Give us a brief overview of what life looks like for you nowadays:
BK: I live in Indianapolis and have a 25-year-old son named Mitchell. I own my own business with a team of 11 employees. Over the last 35 years since playing handball, I found a way to make a living and support myself by being self-employed and running a shirt manufacturing business.
When I first finished my athletic career, I really didn't have a career path because I had played sports for so long. I started my own fan club back in the day as a way to fundraise and keep in touch with people that were following me – when I got shirts made, I watched the person do it. I thought, ‘that’ll be the start to my business.’
It started from there out of my house, but I found avenues to sell some products and looked for some niches in the industry. The revenue is now nearing four million annually. I lucked out. I also started acquiring real estate here in Indianapolis, and to make a long story short, my little hobby of acquiring properties has paid off significantly 35 years later. I've also dabbled in the Airbnb market.
How did you get into handball?
BK: Since I'm from New York, I had a very strong influence of foreigners who immigrated to the States and formed handball clubs in the area. My high school teacher was influenced by that same group of people, so one of the sports he had us play was a version of handball, but he called it speedball.
We had this annual handball tournament, and my team didn't consist of athletes; it was more so a group of misfits. In our first game, I recognized that if our goalkeeper could stop anything, we would have been winning this game. So I said, ‘I'll play the goal, I’ll stop this part of it’. I had an ability to play in the goal that I didn’t know was there. We went to the finals that year, and the following year, everyone wanted me on their team. I stuck with my team and we won the thing hands down.
Eventually, I was invited me to try out for the Junior National Team. I was the youngest guy there by five years. But once I heard that this game was in the Olympics, I had this feeling that I was going to play in the Olympic Games one day. I was coached by a guy named Lazlo Jurak and my goalkeeper coach was Sandor Rivnyak. Both were very influential people in my life to get started in handball. That's how it started.
What sports did you play prior to handball?
BK: I grew up in elementary school playing football, baseball, basketball. My parents got me in all of them, it was all about sports back then. In high school, I found the sport of lacrosse and I just love that sport. I also played football in high school because everybody did at that time. Lacrosse was really fun and I excelled in it as a midfielder.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I was an All-American and went on to play at Adelphi University for one year. We were NCAA Division III champions, and I later retired from lacrosse because handball was now full-time.
Talk a bit about the training and the preparation leading up to the ’84 and ’88 Games:
BK: New Jersey was where we had our training camps for both the Women’s and the Men’s National Teams. My coach at that time was a fantastic individual, someone who shaped my life: Javier Garcia Cuesta. He was probably the most influential coach I've ever had in my life, and to this day, I credit him for not just what we did back then, but for who I am.
We trained during the day and then played our matches during the night. The training was just nonstop, every day. But man, I miss the good days.
Do you have any favorite Olympic memories?
BK: The most memorable thing to this day was walking into the Olympic Stadium during the 1984 Olympic Opening Ceremony. I still get goosebumps just thinking about it. When they announced that the United States of America delegation was entering, there was an initial roar of the crowd and the entire tunnel was vibrating from the noise. I'll never, ever forget it. It was just awesome. Then of course, there's the Games themselves and competing. But if I had to pick one, I would say that was the most memorable event of my life.
In 1988, we had to qualify for the Olympic Games. So making the team was one thing, but to earn the right to go to the 1988 Games was another. We had to win the 1987 Pan American Games to qualify our team for the Olympics. We played into overtime for the deciding match and won in the last 20 seconds. I was awarded the game ball from the president of USA Team Handball, Dr. Buehning. Winning that game was probably the highlight of my playing career, winning a Pan American Games gold medal to qualify our team for the Olympics in Seoul, Korea.
That’s one of the most influential things in my life, and it happened right here in Indianapolis. Everything about Indianapolis has been magical for me.
From all of the international travels, was there a favorite country that you visited through handball?
BK: I had great experiences in all of them, but probably the one that stands out the most is when we played in Brazil in the Pan American Games. I believe it was 1990 and we visited this place in the middle of the jungle called Manaus that I'll never forget. It was an interesting place to see that people live so differently from me.
For whatever reason, the rawness of being in the jungle was very memorable for me. We played amongst the people who walk around the streets with bare feet, bathe in the Amazon river and lived among lizards the size of medium-sized dogs. I remember driving into the jungle and hearing the wild animals, the monkeys, the birds, etc. and seeing the different kinds of trees. It was a memorable thing for me to see that kind of life.
Are you still in touch with your teammates?
BK: I do stay in touch. Our team usually does some Skype calls, and I stay in touch with a couple of players on a regular basis, like Steve Goss, who have been incredible friends to me through my life.
I also have gone to a number of Olympic reunions in the last few years. They’re always just a fantastic opportunity to see my close friends and teammates, which is great. We spent every day of our lives doing something together.
I'm in a position now in my life where I can do more of that stuff. As I'm getting older, I'm realizing if you don't make time for it, you’re going to miss out. I'm getting to that point in my life where it needs to start happening more.
Do you feel like you use any parts of your Olympic experience or values in your everyday life?
BK: I had a coach that said practice would be from 9 to 11 in the morning. At 9:00 am, people were sitting in the gym, tying their shoe laces and getting ready. The coach blew the whistle and we started doing sprints at 100 miles per hour. After that practice, he told us he expected us to be ready. That doesn't mean you’re still tying your shoelaces at 9. You should get here at 8:30 so you’re fully ready to go by 9 am.
I'll never forget that because it made so much sense. No one showed up just at 9 again; we got there early. What did I learn? Don't take it for granted. Just get out there and get busy, because it's not going to come around tomorrow. I live my life that way. I get busy and don't take things for granted. I'm also not competing against anybody. I'm competing against myself and that's the most difficult competitor I got. There's so many parts of sports that transcend into everyday life. What you put in is what you get out.
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?
BK: It's a sad time we're living in right now. But don't stop believing in yourself. Watch videos, learn the game. I remember when I played, I would just take a handball down to the park and throw it against a wall. I'm not even a court player, but I was learning how to throw left-handed and right-handed. There's things you can also do, for your own mental preparation. Try to improve your visualization.
Maybe you can't play with teams, but you can go get a couple of guys together, throw the ball around and work on timing or something. There's movements you can do – you can keep your limbs stretched, lift weights, stay active, and work on a lot of things that are self-improving.