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Thursday, January 18, 2007
 

By By Kathryn Bertine
Editor's Note: Just how hard is it to make the U.S. Olympic team? Does it require a lifetime of training and devotion? Would an average person with an athletic background have any shot at all?

E-ticket will find out the answers over the next two years. We've tapped Kathryn Bertine, a former ice skater, professional triathlete and accomplished author, to see if she can somehow find her way to Beijing in 2008. In what sport? Well, that's what she's trying to decide.

This is Part 2 in our series on Kathryn's Olympic quest in which she tries on the relatively unknown sport of team handball.

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- The most common misperception about getting to the Olympic Games is that there are "tryouts."

Not so.

Nor are there "auditions," though it might be entertaining to watch an athlete sing, dance or perform a soliloquy while sprinting, throwing or jumping.

The reality? For nearly every Olympic sport from curling to shot put to cycling, there is a hierarchy of levels, categories or competitive ranks that it takes years to climb and decades to achieve. There are no sports that, every four years, hang a sign on a neighborhood soccer field: Olympic Trials Today, Everyone Welcome.

Which, in my case, is unfortunate. I'm trying to get to the Olympic Games in 2008, and a tryout process would be much appreciated. True, there are team sports like soccer and softball, which have tryouts and selection procedures to get onto a national team. Being on a national team is a good start but not an Olympic guarantee. For starters, players can be cut at any time. Also, a national team usually has to compete internationally for a berth at the Olympic Games. Again, these take place at the highest level of competition, and elimination is fierce and final. There are no second chances. Or if you prefer "auditionese," there are no callbacks.

The first step in making most Olympic teams usually involves taking up the sport shortly after being born. For those of us older than our shoe size and hoping to get on the Olympic track, it is wise to consult the governing body of a sport to find out its qualification criteria.

More ...

Don't miss out on Kathryn Bertine's series on her efforts to become an Olympian. So far, she's explored pentathlon, team handball and track cycling. Check out earlier columns:
PARTS: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Pentathlon, you might remember, had a qualifying procedure to get into its national training program. I needed to swim a 200-meter time trial in less than 2 minutes, 40 seconds, and run a 3-kilometer time trial in less than 11:20. I achieved the swim, but was 27 seconds too slow during the run. Had I made the program, this would not have guaranteed me Olympic status, only the eligibility to train toward the Olympic qualification standard, which is points-based, the requisite number of points usually taking years to accumulate.

So, forced to search for another lesser-known sport where my natural athletic abilities might carry over, I discovered team handball on the Internet. I always thought of handball as something my fictional Uncle Larry might have played with his retired buddies at the Y. Or something inner-city kids played with taped palms and rubber balls against rundown buildings. However, in the little picture on the team handball Web site, I saw a herd of 10 women on an indoor court, running hither and yon and trying to throw a cantaloupe-sized ball into a soccerish goal. Team handball looked like something my elementary school gym teacher made up to keep us out of trouble on rainy days. Intriguing!

One phone call later, and Christian Latulippe, the head coach of the USA women's squad, is inviting me to open tryouts for the national team. Tryouts? For a national team? I would have been happy with an instructional video. It has been more than a decade since I last played any sort of ball sport (low-level high school softball).

In my head, I do some quick math. Being on a national team in 2007, plus trying to go to Olympic trials in 2008, equals a very exciting scenario. The Olympic theme begins to play in my head — the timpani wallops, the trumpets bleat, the cymbals crash ... then reality squawks.

"I don't know how to play team handball," I tell the coach. "Will that be a problem?"

"Most of our recruits have never seen a handball," coach Latulippe says.

"Is there anything I should do to prepare?"

"Throw a softball around to warm up your arm. So you don't get too sore."

"OK," I say, completely unprepared for the galaxy of hurt I'm about to enter.

The Best Sport I've Never Played
I arrive on the campus of SUNY Cortland in upstate New York on Aug. 13, a Sunday. The sky is clear and blue, and the air is warm, the exact opposite of a typically brutal central New York winter day (I spent four years at Colgate University. Winter lasts from October to May). Winding through the college, which has provided a home for the women's national team despite the fact handball is otherwise unaffiliated with the school, I see an elephantish Ford 350 van with USA Team Handball detailed on the side. With peeling paint and dented panels (probably not from handballs), the faded navy blue van — weathered, tough and severely underfunded — is, I'll soon realize, an accurate metaphor for the women's national team.

At the Team Handball office, I meet the coaches.

Latulippe is French Canadian and a six-time Canadian national team member who has coached the USA women for the past three years. He's about 6 feet tall, with an unshaven face that suggests weariness and an accent that works its way around words with "th" by giving the letters a hard edge: "Hi, Katrin. Welcome to team handball." His assistant, Montana native Dawn Allinger-Lewis, a 1996 Olympian, is a 5-foot-11 knockout of athleticism with a firm handshake.

Also in the office is Kathy Darling, one of the team's co-captains. A former NCAA champion in the discus and javelin, as well as a Division I basketball player for Johns Hopkins, Kathy is 6-foot-2 and 160ish pounds of athletic scariness I hope never to meet in a dark alley or, to be honest, in a scrimmage. She will be my housemate during the five days of my tryout, in which, I hope, she will play an integral role in explaining to me exactly what team handball is. The coaches tell me to get a good night's rest, and that practice the next day will commence with a 7 a.m. weightlifting session.

I shudder, silently. The last time I lifted was six months ago, during the base training phase of my triathlon season. This should feel hellish. Coach Latulippe gives Kathy $120 for us to use as grocery expenses for the week and sends us on our way. $120? That's typically my monthly food budget! Two words immediately zing into my head: snack aisle. As far as I'm concerned, team handball is the best sport I've never played.

Kathy takes me to the "Handball House." I'm not sure what I'm expecting, I guess something dormish like the Olympic Training Center but without all the Olympic rings and bronze statues. Kathy pulls into an apartment complex of two-story units lined up in a row about 10 deep. Not bad, I think: The whole team lives next door to one another in Olympic-funded housing. Then I see a few kids on scooters and a smattering of bedraggled-looking older people crisscrossing the complex. Some of them are smoking. Kathy explains this is a public housing complex where rent is $500 per month, not a private dorm facility for the team.

Inside Unit 94, the carpets and walls are stained and dirty, and there is an impenetrable odor best described as "neglectifunky." I immediately understand why I had been told to bring my own bedding. Everyone on the national team works at least part time — most of them as waitresses, bartenders or clerks — and they all pay full rent. Three of the women, however, are West Point graduates and members of the World Class Athlete Program, which pays them a stipend to train toward the Olympics. West Point is one of the few schools that has a handball team, and, since graduating, Sara Merkl, Jennie Choi, Jacque Messel and Sunny Chen all have played for the national team between stretches of military service. At least three of them drive BMWs.

"I hate my dirt job," Kathy says.

I nod. I've waitressed and worked as a substitute teacher and pet-sitter to help fund the past eight years of athletic dedication. Dirt jobs. Man, I hear ya.

"So what do you do?" I ask.

"I measure dirt. For an engineering company."

I eat dinner with Kathy and Sunny, who recently returned from military duty in Afghanistan. We watch episodes of "Grey's Anatomy" and "Family Guy," thanks to TiVo.

"How many people do you expect at tryouts?" I ask, thinking of a number around 30 or so.

"Two," Kathy says. "Including you." She goes on to explain that the team has no money for recruiting, so folks do what they can by word of mouth and advertising on the Web. This explains the $250 fee I forked over for the tryout.

Kathy says most players have basketball or soccer backgrounds. I figure this is a good time to ask what handball is and how to play it. Although most team captains would laugh at people who showed up at national team tryouts not knowing how to play the sport for which they were trying out, Kathy is not the slightest taken aback by my ignorance.

Handball could be broken down like this: 30 percent basketball, 30 percent soccer, 20 percent hockey (the team plays in an iceless rink, walls taken down), 10 percent water polo, 5 percent dodgeball and 5 percent hot potato. There are two teams of seven players, and the indoor court measures 67 by 131 feet, just a bit larger than a basketball court. The object is to get the ball into the goal (6-foot-7 by 10) by means of throwing. Each goal is worth a point, and women's games typically see scores in the 20s. The melon-sized ball, which weighs less than a pound, is to be passed by throwing or bouncing, but balls still remain in play when kicked, dropped or bounced off another player. Players cannot hold on to the ball for more than three seconds (hot potato). Teams comprise three forwards, three defenders and one goalie.

The game is played in 30-minute halves, with only one timeout per team allowed per half. Substitutions are permitted. There are free throws and foul shots, red cards and yellow ones. When fouls occur, a whistle blows but play is immediately resumed. Visually, team handball resembles indoor soccer, with uniforms consisting of shorts, T-shirts and low-cut court shoes that have no airholes and stink to the high heavens. Some players wear knee pads, but — as I discovered to my chagrin — there is no other form of protection.

Kathy has been playing team handball for only five months. A fellow beginner! This all sounds good to me; I am confident I'll pick it up tomorrow. After all, as a pro triathlete, I'm in the best shape of my life, so all I'll really need to do, I figure, is get a handle on the rules and plays. What I don't know is that Kathy hasn't explained everything, most notably that she is the hardest-throwing, strongest, most deadly assassin on the team. This will become apparent in the morning, when she throws me a ball and my palms sting till the following Thursday.

If Only My Roommate Had Been The Raving Republican
That night, my roommate — the only other woman trying out — arrives. Her name is Anne Coulter, but alas, not that Ann Coulter. This Anne is not a raving Republican loony, but rather a very nice 22-year-old graduate of Colby-Sawyer College, where she played volleyball and basketball and threw the javelin. At 5-9½, she's an inch taller and 30 pounds heavier than me, and I'm getting the idea that the ideal handball body type is not what I possess. Mass is a good thing in handball, and I am a typically lean distance athlete. I am reminded that despite all the different kinds of athleticism, there are usually two main groups. Group A: those who can whup you silly with their muscle-bound strength. Group B: those who can swiftly outrun Group A. I'm an innocent, unsuspecting B about to be thrown onto a court full of vicious As.

Day One: First Practice
At 7 a.m., Dawn, the assistant coach, drives Anne, Kathy and me to practice in the handball van. Kathy tells a lovely story about the time the gas pedal got stuck on the way to a tournament. There is a partially deflated, withered lime green handball on the floor of the back seat. It fits neatly in my hand. I toss it to Anne. Handball is easy to play in a car, I decide.

We arrive at the weight room, a concrete cellblock in SUNY Cortland's athletic center. The standard equipment — benches, weights, bars, mats — is being used by 20 women squeezed into the small space. I shake hands between sets, then try to remember names. A 2-year-old girl clutching a snack-size baggie of Froot Loops wanders among the weight machines, looking quite at home despite the loud clangs of metal.

Kaya is the daughter of Tomuke Ebuwei, the team captain known as T. T is 30, the second-oldest to Edina Batar, also a captain at 32. The majority of the team has a birth date in the '80s. Coach Latulippe hands me a strength training sheet and, before I know it, I'm hurling a medicine ball against a wall while I wait for the bench press to become available. For an hour, I push and pull weights I haven't attempted since college 10 years earlier. In the back of my mind, I shut up the little voice that asks, "Should you be doing this the week before your Ironman race?" After the weights, we form small teams and perform running drills outside. This is even better. I love running! I do quite well, holding a faster pace than some of the West Point girls.

Yeah, team handball, bring it on.

And then, unfortunately, they do.

The afternoon session is in the handball arena — aka, Cortland's ice hockey rink — with blue mats laid over the concrete floor. (In winter, team handball moves to the indoor track and field house.) I'm introduced to team handball by a method the coaches refer to as "baptism by fire."

We warm up with some throwing and stretching drills. The team is wearing Nike-provided red shirts and black shorts. A few players have kneepads. There is no other equipment, except the ball, which is covered with a sticky resin (the consistency of rubber cement) to provide a better grip. I quickly learn this goop is helpful in catching, not so helpful in throwing. My warm-up partner is a former soccer goalie from Notre Dame. Erika Bohn doesn't seem to mind teaching me the different stretches, and by the end of the week, it becomes clear that all the women on the team are not only fantastic athletes but terrific, helpful people.

Coach blows a whistle, and the team separates into groups of offense and defense. We begin running, throwing, shooting and blocking drills. Before I know it, there are balls whizzing at me in every direction and I constantly have to ask what is going on/what do I do/who am I guarding/where am I going/why won't it stop? My court sense is appalling. Although the other women seem to run, catch and throw all in one smooth movement, it takes me three separate thought processes to break down such a basic play. They look fluid; I look robotic.

At the end of practice, we scrimmage. I am reintroduced to a long-forgotten element of contact sports — contact. Since the age of 12, I've been a figure skater, runner, softball player, rower, swimmer and cyclist. The common thread? Sports geared toward staying upright and avoiding other people. For 20 years, I've tried not to crash into things, and now, all of a sudden, I'm supposed to switch into a mode totally the opposite: full frontal collisions, arms clawing at me, floor diving/rolling techniques, and elbows, elbows, everywhere. "Be tough," I whimper to myself. Kathy's forearm comes down on my nose. "Tougher!" I warn, my eyes filling with tears.

When the scrimmage is over, I count up the stupid things I've done in the past two hours, in an attempt to remember to not do them the next day. Some things on the list:

• Letting the ball bounce off me (three times)
• Charging the goalie's box (once)
• Crossing the center line before the ball is in play (at least five times)
• Throwing the ball to a member of the opposite team (twice)
• Letting my guarded person go unattended (countless)

At the end of practice, I'm knackered. Anne, Kathy and I go to the grocery store to spend the $120 food stipend. Kathy buys 15 pounds of steak. Anne loads up on organic stuff. I hit the premade meals freezer. Our bill comes to $236. That was pretty stupid, to shop after a workout. We eat, then fall asleep by 9:30 p.m.

Day Two: Physical Testing
At 7 a.m., Anne and I head out to a series of fitness tests, which the coaches say is an integral part of our tryout. It is the least worrisome part for me, seeing as my inability to play handball scares me much more than how many sit-ups I can do. Before the sit-ups, coach Latulippe tells us he'll be doing body-fat testing with calipers. As a triathlete, my body fat is on the low side. We endurance fiends are a wiry lot. I thought this was a good, healthy thing, but after practice the previous day, it is clear handball is best geared toward more powerful, brick-house bodies.

Coach pinches folds of my skin in a variety of locations; triceps, biceps, pecs, obliques, calves, etc. The fat registers between 4 percent and 13 percent. Then he gets to the quadriceps, which as a cyclist, is my strongest muscle group. Unable to find a meaty skin fold, coach seems frustrated. He fixes this by grabbing the small protrusion of vastus medialis — a muscle just above the knee that peeps out from most cyclists' legs — and clamps his caliper on that. I flex it, to show it is muscle not fat. The caliper twitches, freeing its grip. Coach clamps the muscle again, and dictates 23 percent fat. I have two choices: Speak up and defend my knee muscle, or let it go and stay on the coach's good side.

I keep my yapper shut for once, which is insanely difficult for me.

On the sit-up mat, Anne holds down my feet. Coach says, "Go," and I crank out sit-ups for one minute.

When the minute is up, he looks at me. "Well?"

"That was fun?" I offer.

"How many did you do?"

"I didn't know I was supposed to count."

"OK, do it again," Coach says, smiling. And so goes my day of testing. After my 40 spine-slamming sit-ups (twice) and one pull-up, we do the bench press (where I'm only able to lift 30 pounds one time), a vertical jump test (I don't get very high), and a throw test, where I stand on the end line and hurl a handball as far down the court as possible — in my case, just before the half-court line. A few more tries, this time with loud grunting noises, produce the same result. Finally, my salvation: a running "beep" test. I have to run back and forth across the width of the court, faster and faster, to the time of a recorded "beep" on a cassette player. If I get to the line after the beep, I'm done. If I get there before, I keep going as the tape speeds up. Anne bows out at 4.5 beeps. I go up to 10 and, thinking it is the last level, I stop. The beep beeps. Damn! Apparently the thing beeps on forever. Bummer.

In the afternoon, Dawn teaches Anne and me some new handball skills. For 90 minutes, we learn to shoot on goal. She teaches us fakes and how to throw the ball so hard it forces you into a backward somersault on the mat, which is as soft as the concrete it covers. For me, trying to take only three steps with the ball is a most challenging feat. As a triathlete, I'm trained to keep going for hours; so to stop every few feet is much more difficult than it should be. Dawn also teaches us the defensive tactic of stopping the offense by putting one hand on the opponent's hip and using the other hand to circularly smash down the opponent's throwing arm. In motion, it looks like something from the "Karate Kid." Wax on, perhaps. I notice my shoulder is a bit sore from the day before, but not too bad. I feel more confident after learning some new moves and eagerly look forward to evening practice ...

... which will forever be known in my personal history as Deer in Headlights II: Night of the Mangled Carcass.

The players arrive for evening team practice (7-9 p.m.), wearing red T-shirts and black shorts. What works as unity for them is pure confusion for me. Too many new faces all dressed the same is not helpful. We warm up, then begin an hour-long scrimmage. Coach puts me at left wing, which seems to be the best spot for a weak player with limited skills. I try the wax-on maneuver on my offensive woman, today played by Erin, and she sees right through it and does some sort of lightning-fast pivot and breaks free. These women are so quick, so powerful, so talented. They move through plays knowing exactly where the other is going, weaving seamless patterns, braiding themselves into successful plays. By the end of the game, I see the truth before me. My chances of making this national team are incredibly slim. But I'm not giving up. There are a couple more days, and I haven't lost my desire to try.

Day Three: Playing Hurt
What I have lost, however, is the ability to move my arms and legs. I wake up so sore I can barely see straight.

"Anne," I call over to my roommate's bed. "Can you lift your arms?"

"Not above parallel to the floor," she answers. Good, I think. At least I'm not alone. But I can't remember a time when I was sorer. My shoulder, from doing the tilted somersaulty thing over the hard mat floor, is on fire. My shins, not accustomed to sprinting, are aching. My knees, which prefer forward movement, are unappreciative of the stop-start, herky-jerky movements of team sports. Even my brain is sore. My desire to make a national team and the reality of doing so with team handball are battling it out in my throbbing frontal lobe.

We have an hour until practice, so I try to squeeze in some quick laundry at the Kleen Korner in downtown Cortland. My timing is off, and I go to practice in a cold, wet sports bra, which I later will be too sore to remove. My boyfriend, Steve, calls and asks how handball is going. Unable to lift the cell phone to my ear, I shout down to my gimpy palm, "This sport hurts. Bad."

"Do you think you'll make the team?" he asks.

"Do you think they need a water girl?" I bellow.

We have only two practices today. We work on passing the ball from a plethora of positions — seated, kneeling, standing, running. We do jump shots, meaning Coach places a child-sized running hurdle in front of the goal and we have to approach it in a three-step sequence, jump up Air Jordan style, hang in the air, then hurl the ball into the corner of the goal. My jump sequence ends up looking more Michael Jackson than Michael Jordan.

We then do plyometric jumps up the Cortland Ice Arena bleachers on one foot. I do well at this, but my confidence doesn't last long. Soon, we're on to more goal shooting techniques, and Coach takes me over to the far-side goal. He places me about 5 feet from the left post — not in front of the goal but perpendicular to the side of the goal. I am then instructed to try to throw the ball into the goal while seated. I check my memory of high school physics, to recall whether it is even possible to make a goal from this angle. Then I recall that I didn't take high school physics. A surge of regret tingles in my shoulder.

Inevitably, I have to fall onto my right side to get any sort of angle into the netting. This would not be difficult for Inspector Gadget, but seeing as I cannot detach my shoulder and move it out a few feet, I'm at a loss as to how to get the ball in the goal. I try, and the results are painful. Especially for the shoulder I keep falling on. Fifteen non-goals later, handballs are strewn across the gym and bleachers.

The worst part of practice comes at the end. We do multiple sets of throw-and-roll, where I have to do the dreaded backward half-somersault over my right shoulder. Again, this is a move that should be one fluid motion, but I make it look more like I'm on fire and trying to extinguish myself. A thought comes to mind that I would make the worst stuntwoman ever. I tell my body it should enjoy the challenge of a new experience and quit complaining. It sends a bolt of fury into my rotator cuff. So much for warming up with a softball to prepare for this tryout. Coach should have told me to juggle shot-put shots.

Coach comes over, notes the net void of handballs. I sense his disappointment in me. He makes little eye contact, and I feel that my presence is merely tolerated. I'm frustrated that I'm not picking up this sport quickly. Really frustrated. I can race a 140-mile Ironman, but I can't get a ball into a goal? Come on, you wussy twit. This ain't gonna get you to the Olympics. There is another practice tonight, but my time to impress is running out.

During evening warm-ups, I reminisce about a time when I could touch my toes. That was Monday, but I'm quite sure I'll never be able to do it again. I do a not-so-decent job of guarding Erin at left wing, as she gets by me again and again and scores frequently.

"That's your man, Kathryn," Coach points out, which reminds me of teenage years when certain family members used to point out pimples on my face as if I didn't see them myself. For a while, Coach switches me to "circle," which is center forward. Circle has a nice ring to it and doesn't sound like such a dangerous position, but it turns out the position is similar to playing keep-away. Only I'm the ball. I'm shoved back and forth between two of the tallest, largest girls on the team. They seem to enjoy this.

I hear Kathy review my play by saying, "She's not very aggressive." Yay! Mental games! My favorite! The nonaggressive comment makes me mad; my adrenaline rises; and I push my offensive player a bit harder the next time we connect. I'm supposed to make contact with her upper arm and lower hip, but I have accidentally grabbed other nearby body parts. I mumble, "Sorry," which does not help me acquire a badass reputation.

As I try to stop the offensive players charging at me, I know Kathy is partially right. I'm used to a much different aggression, the athlete versus bike kind of aggression, where I only have to beat up myself, not anyone else. That night, I leave the arena with a new respect for the physicality of sports such as team handball. Not that I ever thought it was easy to play in the first place, of course. I just didn't think such an "unknown" sport would have such world-class athletes.

Olympic Team Handball Turns 70
Popular in Europe, team handball made its Olympic debut in the 1936 Games in Berlin. There, it was an outdoor sport with 11 players on a side. It disappeared in the '40s, only to reappear in 1976 as an indoor sport with seven players per team. After the boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the USA sent its first women's team to the Los Angeles Games in 1984. We lost the bronze medal match with China, but that fourth-place finish remains the USA's Olympic best. During the next three Olympics, the women slid to seventh, sixth and eighth, respectively.

What was happening to handball was the classic chicken-and-egg dilemma of all underfunded, lesser-known sports: Which comes first, the funding or the exposure? With a pitiful budget, team handball had to make a tough choice in the mid-'90s — fund a national team of aging players, or promote the sport to the young at the grassroots level to produce better teams in the future? While the money went toward building team handball programs in elementary schools and local clubs, the women of the mid-'90s national team got together each year, often financing their own way, to compete in the Pan Am Games (which were and still are the USA's only chance to qualify for the Olympics). With hardly any money or practice time, the women failed to qualify for the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.

But the current national team is our strongest in a long time, having posted an 8-1 record in the 2005 season. Its chances of qualifying for the 2008 Olympics are better, though not golden. As co-captain Kathy explains, "We'd have to beat Brazil. They are all 6 feet tall and have more than 10,000 screaming fans at all their games."

Day Four: A (Relatively) Slow Session
Morning: Rest!!! No practice until 3 p.m.! No night practice afterward! Still, I need to try to get the lactic acid moving, so I take my bike for a two-hour spin in the morning, because triathletes do quirky things like this. Twenty minutes in, I actually feel looser, almost pliable. My knees are a little creaky, my back a little achy, my brain a little wobbly. In other words, I feel completely normal.

At afternoon practice, more stop, drop and roll. I would rather let the fires of hell consume me than roll over that damn shoulder again. Coach is watching. I roll. Or more accurately, unroll. I either get stuck halfway through and tip over to one side, or get too little momentum and roll back the way I came.

Then, Coach calls for us to do wide receiver passes, which entail the goalie hurling the ball the length of the gym while someone runs to intercept it. When caught, the ball is then supposed to be slammed into the opposing goal. I watch the players do this with ease, grace and power. My turn comes. I run, catch … and drop. Three times in a row. I'm so sad, seeing as catching is my strength. At least it was, back when I could open my arms and fingers. On the fourth try, I finally get it and make a run at the goal. The freaking ball actually goes in, and I want with all my heart and soul to do a touchdown dance, but I refrain because no one else has. I notice my soreness is slowly dissipating, except for my shin, heels, arms, shoulders, neck and groin. Otherwise, I'm fine. When practice is over, Coach sets up a time to meet tomorrow, where he will go over the evaluation of my tryout. Noon it is.

That night, Anne and I have a supportive conversation.

"I think you made the team," I say.

"I think you made the team," she says.

"Liar," I say.

The Last Encounter
At high noon, I mosey into coach Latulippe's office. Anne is there, and I wait outside until Coach is done with her assessment. I hear lighthearted banter and positive words like "excellent" and "start soon."

Although I know my team handball skills are subpar, there is still a sense of longing that twitches nervously in my stomach. I want to be on this team. I want to see whether we can make it to the Olympics. Maybe I can be the team's athletic equivalent of a Hollywood stand-in.

When it is my turn to go in, Coach and Dawn sit down and hand me some sheets. They are friendly, but their smiles give them away. We go over the sheets, computerized lists of my strengths, weaknesses, sit-ups, body fat, etc. For each section, I'm given a score between one and five. Perfection is 70 points.

I scan the list. I get a 4.5 on overall fitness, a zero on rolling. In between, I'm given 1s and 2s on most maneuvers. In the comment box, there are phrases like "missing court sense" and "must anticipate better" and, my personal favorite, next to the body-checking assessment — "still scared and nervous." Under the psychological section, things improve. I'm given more points for discipline, attitude, motivation and team cohesion. It is nice to know I'm exactly the kind of person they'd want on the team if I had talent.

But at the end, I've scored only 30 percent. I see that the chart on the side of the sheets says, "60 percent=Pan Am Level Player" and "90 percent=All Star International Player" and "30 percent=Inexperienced Player." Which is a correct evaluation, and a lot nicer than saying 30 percent=You Suck.

At the bottom, there's a note:

"Kathryn, for your age and for our needs, you lack important tools (court sense and upper body strength) to continue in this program. We appreciate your effort, your attitude, and your interest in our sport. Thank you, good luck, and pass the word of team handball on."

Coach and Dawn are telling me, in the nicest possible way, that they can't put the time and effort into teaching a 31-year-old beginner the basic levels of the game but that they would have taken me right away if I were 12. (I file that away as the best backhanded compliment ever received.) I'm disappointed, but I understand: If I want to go to the Olympics at my age, there is no time to teach an old dog new tricks. I need to pursue what I already know how to play or do. That means no more attempting to fence, shoot, ride horses, throw a handball or try my luck with any newfangled sport. The final three opportunities loom large: cycling, rowing, triathlon.

I leave Cortland without a spot on the national team but with a deep respect for a sport I'd never heard of just a few weeks earlier and a deeper respect for the women who play this game. Every member of the national team was kind and courteous, driven and serious. Each respected me as a fellow athlete, and if folks laughed at my novice abilities, they did so in private. No one came late to practice; everyone gave her all. The team gets little funding from the USOC and even less publicity in the media. The players work dirt jobs and live in a small town and go to practice in hopes of making an Olympic team in a sport no one has heard of — not to mention a team that hasn't qualified for Olympic eligibility in more than a decade. In a world that pays some athletes millions of dollars to fill themselves with steroids and "break records," here is a professional-level team that wholeheartedly represents the long-lost ideal of amateur athleticism: the love of sport.

Next installment: Time ticketh. Next sport up: track cycling. The downside — no brakes. The upside — no balls.

Although I couldn't do much personally to develop USA Team Handball, maybe you can. If you're not a towering, solid specimen of female athleticism with court sense, speed and throwing abilities, perhaps you know someone who is … pass this along, won't ya? To find out more about team handball or to "adopt" a player, please visit www.usateamhandballwomen.com.

While Kathryn is not a mega-star athlete who is a shoo-in for Olympic Gold, she is good enough to race professionally for Team Sport Beans/NTTC, and also represent Trisports.com and Trek Bicycles.