An International Women’s Day celebration: Eight inspiring female handball players
Today, March 8, marks the annual International Women’s Day — a day to celebrate and motivate as so many women around the world share their stories or those of the women who have inspired them. For me, it absolutely feels like an increasingly empowering day and one worth celebrating.
My name is Courtney Gahan and that may be familiar to those who followed the Women’s EHF EURO 2022 closely, as I guided readers through the tournament as the writer of the official newsletter, along with covering the tournament with my journalist colleagues on eurohandball.com. Today I’m back to share eight female handball players who have inspired me and why.
I’ve written before about how all the players empower others, so to narrow this list down, I had to go beyond the court and consider much more than how they throw or defend. Also, while an eight-year-old in Copenhagen may be looking at Sandra Toft’s technique as she dreams of one day being between the goal posts for Denmark, my inspiration comes more in the form of personal qualities or development that I strive for; people who empower me to follow their example through their actions.
So now you know my criteria — let’s dive in.
At the World Championship in 2015 I was writing a story featuring a number of players, where I was mapping the path from being a child dreaming of being a professional handball player through to managing the bumps in a successful career. I asked each of them about different stages in their careers — Tunisian Mouna Chebbah about her childhood dream of playing in Europe and then actually doing it; Montenegrin Katarina Bulatovic about how hard she worked to develop her killer shot; Swedish Isabelle Gulldén about making it into the national team for the first time and becoming a key player; and Polish Kinga Achruk about the challenges of tournaments.
My only chance to interview Gulldén was right after they lost the Last 16 game against Denmark. I asked her about coming back from big disappointments as well as small ones, like missing being named in the national team versus making a mistake in a match. It was what she said about mistakes in games that I really held onto and applied in my daily life.
The original quote is sadly lost – blame almost a decade of laptop changes and website updates — but it was basically that ‘the best players are the ones who recover from their mistakes the fastest’. I’ve thought of that advice from Gulldén many times since that moment — whenever I have made a mistake, I’ve tried to make it a habit to recover and learn from it as soon as possible. The faster the better.
I was covering the Women’s Junior World Championship in 2018 when I noticed Chile goalkeeper Madeleine Cortez leave the court looking very disheartened, as her team were losing and she had been facing a lot of fast breaks. I played one World Championship for Australia, and I know how difficult it was for our goalkeepers as we lost by clear margins.
I wanted to talk to Cortez to let her know she wasn’t alone — to remind her that way more players in the world are working hard in a developing team than those who experience standing on top of a podium. Then I thought of another South American goalkeeper I had just met, at the Women’s EHF FINAL4 2018, whose words would have more weight: Mayssa Pessoa. So, I asked Pessoa if she wouldn’t mind sending some words of encouragement for Cortez.
Pessoa was really sick at the time, so it was a very nice effort for her to send this encouraging video speaking in a croaky recovering-from-a-cold voice. Pessoa spoke to Cortez for several minutes about how she knows it’s hard and what matters is that she does her best and that the team are all in it together. I showed Cortez the video and, after that, I saw so many times in games where her head was about to drop but she must have thought of Pessoa’s advice, because then she would visibly find her strength again.
Pessoa helped me see just how powerful it is when we support each other and how much the right person, very often an unexpected person, offering encouragement can make an enormous difference.
Some years ago, Nora Mørk was hacked and personal photos of her were shared online. It was a shocking crime and the way Mørk handled it was so important in helping women feel as though we have agency when it comes to our bodies. It may seem obvious that we should, but the society we live in has changed a lot in recent years to reach the understanding we have now — I am sure most adult women grew up with the idea that we need to be cautious in order to protect ourselves and there was no other option.
But there is another option — for us to live however we want and the people who would perpetrate any kind of cybercrime or physical or sexual harassment or worse to be the ones who are punished for their transgressions.
In the early days of such cybercrimes, I recall some Hollywood celebrity photo hacks where the actresses lost sponsorships or jobs because someone stole their photos. The women were punished for being victims of a crime.
The understanding of such incidents as the crimes they are had to evolve, and now we can thank people like Mørk for making the world realise that someone taking advantage of a woman in any way is nothing for the woman to be ashamed of. It is the perpetrators who must be ashamed. She did nothing wrong in enjoying her life, and we all should feel free to do that without feeling like we are asking for harassment or worse.
At the Women’s World Championship in 2021, Iran played Norway in the preliminary round, in what was the Asian side’s first participation in the event. Norway, who went on to win the world title, recorded a decisive win over Iran — but I think everyone in the arena for that game remembers what came at the end much more.
Iran goalkeeper Fatemeh Khalili was announced as the player of the match, after putting on quite a show with some spectacular saves. She had already earned the approval of the audience and then the announcement that she was player of the match came.
As Khalili paused for the photo after receiving the award, she suddenly started crying — and in one second, I was too. I looked at the Norway team, and several of them were crying as well. For the IHF channels, we made a video of that player of the match awarding and people simply loved this really touching moment.
I still can’t quite understand why this was such an emotional moment or why it resonated with people so much — the best I can come up with is that Khalili showed genuine, unfiltered emotion, and that is something people can immediately connect with. Khalili showed us to wear our hearts on our sleeves, and I took a big lesson to try to always do that — like bearing my soul with the very personal opinions in this article.
After the Women’s EHF EURO 2022, I saw one comment on a social media post featuring a hug between Jovanka Radicevic and Katrine Lunde saying how the EHF featured Radicevic a lot — and I can’t deny that I think every member of the EHF media team is enamoured with her, especially the women.
But that says something — a huge something — about her.
It’s something very hard to put my finger on though. She’s a great player of course. She’s entertaining as hell to watch. Maybe it’s that ‘wears her heart on her sleeve’ thing that people all loved so much about Fatemeh Khalili.
No doubt even someone who has never met Radicevic would have a lot to say about what makes her great if asked, but there is another level I’ve observed: how every one of my colleagues who has worked with Radicevic ends up having such a friendly relationship with her. She is fast to establish genuine connections with people, including all kinds of roles in our sport, and make everyone feel seen and great about themselves. She leads the way with kindness and empathy and the result is happy, confident people all around her.
I love that she says f*** in an interview.
In two seconds talking to her, you feel like you are talking to a friend. Some people have that gift of making you feel so at ease right away.
Polman is really down-to-earth, friendly, open and positive and I admire how she brings so many good vibes to other people through being true to herself. She is always cracking jokes and smiling or laughing, helping the people around her feel at ease and enjoy the moment. She’s just a bright ray of sunshine.
Not only is she a great and unique player, but Serbian international Kristina Liscevic has been pursuing another passion in recent years: songwriting and singing.
Before the EHF EURO 2020, she released her first song ‘I’m gonna win’, and we subsequently enjoyed many videos of different EURO teams dancing to the song. It was all around great fun for the handball community and we have ‘Kiki’ to thank for it. Special mention also to Spanish international and Liscevic’s former teammate at Valcea, Mireya Gonzalez, who lent her video-making skills to create the song’s official video.
The Women’s EHF EURO 2020 took place in very difficult conditions. It was one of the first major sports events to be held in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and definitely the first one in handball. It was the only EURO where half our media team, including myself, worked at home. I recall dark winter days that December working alone rather than surrounded by the great tournament atmosphere, with the uncertainty of Covid-19 hanging over us, but those videos of teams dancing to Liscevic’s video really brightened the mood.
She helped to inspire us all to have some fun together in a difficult time. On top of that, it’s just great to see someone chase their different passions.
I interviewed Stine Oftedal at my very first EHF EURO in 2014. At that time, she was not quite the established superstar she is now, although she was well on her way.
Aside from seeing how she has continued to develop as an athlete, I have observed how she has evolved in her handling of media duties — and this is where there is clear evidence of how smart she is. I have been in press conferences where Oftedal was asked about the problematic temperature of the arena or referee performance, and she handled the questions so gracefully, with a smile on her face, politely finding some way to answer without saying anything negative and leaning into where the question was supposed to lead her.
Many players are great to interview and handle their media duties well, but I always think how the players interact with journalists reflects understanding about the importance of media in the success of the sport. It seems Oftedal has spent time deciding how she wants to act off the court as well as on it, and this media side is just one example of that.
I have so much respect for her approach to everything. The breadth of understanding of the sports world in which she makes her living is part of what makes Oftedal next level.