USA Team Handball caught up with 1988 Olympian Amy Gamble, who was one of the top-ranked high school basketball players in the country before first discovering the sport of handball. Gamble made history at John Marshall High School as the first women’s basketball athlete there to score more than 1,000 points. She also was the first athlete at the high school to have her jersey retired. Gamble played at the University of Tennessee and the University of West Virginia before deciding to try out for the U.S. Women’s National Handball Team.
Gamble went on to represent Team USA at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Since her athletic career, she went on to earn a master’s degree in Organizational Management from the University of Phoenix and an an undergraduate degree in Communications from the University of Arizona. Additionally, Gamble has achieved a diverse professional resume as an author, marketing and sales professional for Fortune 500 companies, and motivational speaker/mental health advocate. Take a look at our Q&A below to learn more about Gamble, her handball memories and the years since her athletic career:
Give us a brief overview of what life looks like for you nowadays:
AG: I am a mental health advocate and a speaker. I just recently left an Executive Director position with a mental health advocacy chapter that I started in my hometown locally. Prior to that, I was in corporate America for about 16 years, working in the pharmaceutical industry – so I had a business and non-profit background, but my real passion is mental health advocacy, education, and speaking.
I have given over 250 talks and trainings over the last five years, so it’s definitely a big focus for me. I’m also currently working on a documentary, which will shed light on trauma recovery specifically. I think this is an important topic, especially for athletes with mental health advocacy. In our culture with athletics, getting help is really not encouraged. It is a little better now compared to back when I was an athlete, but it still has a lot of stigma surrounding it.
I currently am living in my hometown in West Virginia, but over the years, I lived in nine different cities all over the country. I graduated from the University of Arizona and I played basketball at both the University of Arizona and the University of Tennessee.
How did you get into handball?
AG: When I was in high school, I was a top-five women’s basketball player in the country according to USA Today, Parade, and other outlets. I made the Olympic Sports’ Festival Team for basketball as a junior and senior in high school. While I was at the festival, a sportswriter friend of mine took me to see team handball. He turned to me and said ‘You should really consider playing this when you are done playing basketball – I think you would be really good’. I can remember that like it was yesterday because it was so impactful in my life.
After that, I played basketball for the University of Tennessee under Pat Summitt, but things just didn’t work out for a number of reasons, including my own mental health challenges. I transferred and came back home, and one day I thought, ‘my dream since I was nine years old was to be an Olympian. Maybe I should try a different sport because basketball wasn’t working out for me.’ I called the U.S. Team Handball Federation to see if I could have a tryout for the Olympic Sports Festival. They connected me with Melinda Rhoads, who wasn’t too far from me, and she helped me get connected. I tried out and made the Sports Festival handball team. Later on, when they were choosing the National Team, they asked me if I wanted to join. I quit school and joined the U.S. National Team.
Do you have any favorite Olympic memories?
AG: It still gives me chills just to think about walking into the Olympic stadium. It is one of those moments where reality feels surreal. I was looking around at all the fanfare and it was a dream come true moment for me. The theme song for the 1988 Games was called “One Moment in Time” and was sung by Whitney Houston. I remember one part of the lyrics said ‘when I am more than I thought I could be’ and I thought that really hit home. It was all just amazing.
And of course, the competition was amazing too. I do think that if we went into it believing that we could have won a medal, we would’ve had a better opportunity to do that. It was disappointing not to medal, but it was still a dream come true regardless.
Do you feel like you use any parts of your Olympic experience or values in your everyday life?
AG: When I went to the Olympic reunion, I saw a sculpture outside that said “Olympic Strength”, which encompasses strength in mind, strength in body and strength in spirit. I truly believe in each of those components impacting and shaping my life journey, which I will be talking about in my documentary.
My experience of becoming an Olympian probably saved my life, because I could always draw back to that strong foundation to see what I could do and what I could accomplish. That has always given me a protective factor from all the challenges I’ve faced. Another thing is that being an Olympian has always been a door opener for me. It is instant credibility that people have such respect for. I think even as Olympians, we don’t look at ourselves and think we are so awesome, look at all we have accomplished. But other people do look at you like, ‘wow, that is impressive’.
I wanted to talk a little more about your time training with the national team. I know you went on tours around the country, playing handball in different cities. What were those like?
AG: My one sentence answer would be ‘what a gift that was’. I was 20 years old when we took that first tour, and it was such a gift to think back about all the places we got to see. Not just from a sports aspect, but also a cultural aspect, it was such a gift.
I remember being in Moscow when it was still the Soviet Union. Through that trip, I learned that people everywhere are still people, and that is a lesson from sports that has stuck with me to this day. There are politics and then there are people. I became friends with a lot of the Russian handball players who went on tour with us, when we went to five different American cities including my hometown. I remember we actually beat them by one goal in Washington DC. It was an incredible experience.
Where would you like to see the sport go in the next few years, especially leading up to the LA 2028 Games?
AG: I think the first thing that comes to mind is putting on my analytical hat and thinking about what our resources are. If I had some level of resources, I would try to get to the high school level – build as much at the grassroots level, teaching basic skills. I would do that if I could with some notably elite athletes that could do crossover.
Many of the athletes on our team were top level in other sports. Almost everybody was a former Division 1 athlete in volleyball, softball, basketball or something. We could work on recruiting elite college athletes who are top level, but may not make the WNBA or NBA. Another idea is getting the commitment to have a full-time training program at the Olympic Training Center and do the national tours like we did. I think that was extremely beneficial. So, if you could work on the high school growth, then do that. But if you can’t do high school, work on the college level with targeting specific events to recruit athletes. Building relationships with other sports’ coaches also might help encourage their athletes to consider the handball pathway.
As someone who was successful at both sports, do you feel like your basketball skills translated over to handball? What did that talent transfer look like?
AG: It translated over in a couple of different ways. One way was that court vision and ability to see the court. I always had that ability in basketball to have tremendous court vision, which translated well to handball. I was predominantly a post player and played mostly the small forward/power forward positions, which translated really well to being a circle runner with a lot of picking and turning. There were a lot of things that I learned at Tennessee that translated perfectly to being a circle runner.
Fast breaks are another similarity between the two sports. Defense is a little harder of a transition, because you get closer to the other players on the court in basketball. As far as throwing, a lot of people had better arms than me. But I also had a track background with throwing the discus, so I had a bit of arm strength from my throwing experience.
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?
AG: The first thing I would tell people is that this is not going to last forever and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s important to remember how you want to look when this is over and what you can work on now that you might not have had an opportunity to otherwise because you are so involved with training.
Can I spend more time in the weight room? Can I spend more time with interval training? I would really try to focus on the things I didn’t always focus on, and do some crossover activities. If you live in a cold area and you cannot go to the track, maybe go to the pool and work on your endurance and strength.
Also, work on your overall mental health. This pandemic is impacting everybody’s mental health. Nobody is immune from that and we are all living through a traumatic event. How people handle that and if it becomes traumatic for people depends on their coping skills. Spend some time learning about how you’re being impacted mentally. There is a lot of uncertainty and we don’t know when things will end, but we know that they will inevitably end at some point.