Many people would be intimidated by playing handball against the world’s best. But 20-year-old Nicolai Weber cannot wait to take advantage of his opportunity at the 2021 IHF Men’s World Championship in Egypt next month.
There are going to be a lot of firsts for Weber in January 2021, most notably representing Team USA for the very first time.
Weber was born in Hartford, Connecticut, but moved to Denmark shortly after, making him one of several athletes with dual citizenship on the U.S. Men’s National Team roster. This will also be the first time he has played professional handball outside of Denmark; all of Weber’s professional experience has taken place in Danish handball leagues.
Despite all of these firsts, Weber is not fazed.
“I'm not really too concerned that I'm one of the younger guys,” Weber said. “I feel like I've recently collected some courage. I'm really excited and ready to go.”
Weber’s first international competition coincides with USA Team Handball’s first appearance at the World Championships since 2001. They will compete against some of the world’s best handball players and teams in just a few weeks, with Team USA hoping to build momentum there that carries them into 2021 and beyond.
“Being a part of creating awareness for handball in the United States is exciting as well, because the sport is very popular here in Europe but that’s not the case in the U.S,” Weber said. “Looking the world's best handball players in the eye is going to be amazing. But I also think shifting the direction of U.S. handball is going to be incredible as well.”
Not only is Weber one of the youngest players on the team, but he is also attempting to return to professional handball after taking some time off from the sport.
“I was completing my senior year at the Danish gymnasium (equivalent to high school in the United States) and it was just really busy,” Weber said. “I had a lot of subjects that I needed to pass and complete, and I also wanted to spend time on other areas of my life. So I had to take a step back from handball, prioritize my academics, and get done with school.”
Once Weber completed school and passed his required subjects, he embarked on his ‘sabbatical year,’ something that many Danish students take after completing their secondary education that is similar to the gap year that some Americans take between their secondary education and college studies.
During their sabbatical years, many students – including Weber – spend time working and making enough money to travel and experience life outside of Denmark.
That was the plan, at least, until the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from doing so.
“I was planning on going to Japan and becoming a ski and snowboard instructor over there,” Weber said. “Of course, that wasn't an option because of COVID. When that trip got canceled, I stayed in [my] chocolate factory job to get some extra money and see what I could do.”
Weber spent much of his sabbatical year working in a chocolate factory owned by some family friends. Weber would work from 8 am to 8 pm, folding chocolate boxes, sending out deliveries from the factory, and even helping to produce the chocolate.
“It's standard work, but hard work. It's easy to stay in shape when you're doing such hard work all the time. On some days, I would get done with my shift, go home and feel so tired that I would have nothing left to say,” Weber said. “I'd just go right to bed, wake up the next morning, and repeat it all over again. You get a bit sore in the neck and the back, but overall it was great.”
Weber took time during his break to reconsider and determine his priorities. He ultimately decided to take up handball again in the fall, with the break helping him regain some motivation.
Once he returned, according to Weber, it was like he had never left. And after hearing about Team USA’s call for open tryouts from a Danish media site, he knew he had to submit an application.
“Once I heard that I could submit a video tryout, I thought it could be a huge opportunity for me. I hadn't really been involved in the U.S. so far and thought it was a great way to finally change that,” Weber said. “I love playing handball. I recently took a break, but I thought this was a great chance to get back in the game and obviously represent the United States for the first time in my life.”
Now, Weber will have to ramp up his training in preparation for the World Championships, become accustomed to the bright spotlight that comes with playing on the world stage, and take on the responsibility of representing the United States in an international competition.
Luckily for him, Team USA will be preparing for the competition in a very familiar setting, as they will be training just 20 minutes from Weber’s hometown of Kolding. And he has already gotten a taste of the spotlight, as Weber recently interviewed with both the Danish newspaper JydskeVestkysten and the Danish television channel TV 2 News.
“I'm trying to be myself in this situation and do the best I can, but it's a little intimidating because it's the first time I'm doing something like this,” Weber said. “It went from zero to 100 almost instantly. I'm trying to make the most out of it and enjoy every moment."
Despite all of the pressure and challenges that lay in front of him, Weber is just excited to get back out onto the court and bond with his new teammates ahead of the World Championships.
“I want to build strong bonds [with them] both on the court and off the court,” Weber said. “It's exciting because I feel like I'm going into a new class or a new school. I'm just ready to meet the guys and bond with them.”
Weber’s first opportunity to meet 19 new classmates will be on January 4, when the team reports to training camp.
The team will practice in Weber’s backyard, with their sights set on the World Championships that begin on January 13th. During that time – like Weber said – the team will have the opportunity to shift American handball in an exciting new direction.