Empower to inspire: The new balance of Joyce van Haaster

ER 2837 (1)
EHF / Eric Willemsen

Once a promising handball talent, Dutch goalkeeper Joyce van Haaster had to start her career – and her life, for that matter – from scratch again following a severe disease. She succeeded with flying colours and is now an international icon of wheelchair handball. This is part five of our series ‘Empower to Inspire’.

In the late 1990s, Joyce van Haaster was part of a generation of up-and-coming talents in Dutch handball. She played for ‘Jong Oranje’ – the Netherlands’ junior national team – and shared the goalkeeper position with Marieke van der Wal.

“I grew up with Marieke. I was with (club team) Westlandia, she with Quintus, so in the beginning we played against each other. After that, we were teammates at Quintus,” Van Haaster recalls.

Van der Wal went on to become one of the country’s best-known internationals, a stalwart for many years, who was still part of the Dutch team when they won silver at the 2015 IHF World Championship in Denmark, the country’s first medal at a major championship.

And Van Haaster? Her career was halted 13 years earlier.

In 2002, when she was 24, Van Haaster discovered a swelling in her left thigh, which later turned out to be a malignant tumour.

“Handball was over for me right away,” says Van Haaster, who went through years of chemo and radiotherapy. On one hand, she could call herself “lucky, as my chances to survive this were not great.” But on the other hand, complications occurred.

“My thigh bone was broken and didn’t heal again. After three years, I got an artificial bone in my leg and they took out the muscle where that tumour was,” Van Haaster says. “My whole world turned upside-down. But soon I thought: ‘This becomes the match of my life. I can’t stand losing so there will only be one winner, and that winner will be me.’”

It is the mindset that has characterised Van Haaster ever since. Don’t get her wrong, she has gone through dark times and felt deep down, as well.

“I’ve had my hard times, too,” she says. “But each time I thought: “This is what it is, and I must keep going.”

And keep going eventually meant going back to sports. It took her a while though. Going on crutches in everyday life, she didn’t fancy sitting in a wheelchair to do sports.

“I had been fighting for so long to avoid getting into a wheelchair, that I didn’t want to sit in it voluntarily to do sports,” Van Haaster says. “But a friend persuaded me to try wheelchair tennis – wheelchair handball didn’t even exist at that time.”

The competitor in her soon rose again, and once she was playing tennis this way, Van Haaster discovered her love for wheelchair sports. It was still several more years before she would return to handball.

A first demonstration of wheelchair handball in Netherlands took place in 2013. Ada Stam, a long-term goalkeeper with CSV Handbal in Castricum, insisted on playing handball during her revalidation, so a game between patients of her revalidation centre Heliomare in Beverwijk and the men’s team of HV Aalsmeer was set up.

It was the first time wheelchair handball was played on Dutch soil. A video clip of the game with Stam was posted on Facebook and got Van Haaster into it.

“When I saw that, I contacted the Dutch Handball Federation and told them: ‘If you want to start a wheelchair division, I am here, so let’s get started’,” says Van Haaster, who calls the late Stam the ‘Mother of Wheelchair Handball’ in Netherlands.

On 25 May 2014, CSV officially started a wheelchair handball team. Meanwhile, around 10 clubs across the Netherlands have followed that example, after the upswing had recently been interrupted due to the pandemic.

The Dutch federation, NHV, is staging a national league, with the teams gathering at one location once a month and each of them playing two matches of 2x20 minutes.

“In our league, you don’t need to have a handicap,” says Van Haaster, who practises three times a week. “If you cannot play handball anymore because of a bad knee, or you can’t run as fast anymore, you can come and join us. At international level, however, you need a classification.”

For a sport that has only really existed in the country since 2014, the Netherlands national team have been doing exceptionally well. And Van Haaster has been the figurehead right from the start. The goalkeeper still remembers her first international event, the EHF Nations’ Tournament in Austria in 2015.

CSV was still the only Dutch club playing wheelchair handball at that time, so the team with which Van Haaster was usually playing demonstrations throughout the Netherlands suddenly became the Dutch national team.

“We had no idea, never played an official match,” Van Haaster recalls. “We saw Portugal playing and were so impressed that we thought: ‘Wow, if we can keep our defeat against them below 10 goals, then we should be happy!’ But we won all matches – also beat Portugal twice, in the group phase and in the final – and suddenly we were European champions!”

Van Haaster was named the All-star goalkeeper of the tournament, an award she has received after almost every international tournament since.

Wheelchair handball made another step in 2022, when the first IHF World Championship took place in Egypt, in a four-a-side format unfamiliar to the Dutch team. Netherlands finished fifth, but went back to the final and won silver in the biggest event of the year, the inaugural World & European Wheelchair Handball Championship six-a-side in Portugal.

And Van Haaster, once again, was named in the All-star Team.

But she has remained well grounded; last year was the first time she really started to realise she had become an international star of wheelchair handball: “In Egypt, at the end of that tournament, one of the Brazilian players told me they had been watching and analysing videos of me to learn where they should shoot to beat me. That’s when I first thought: OK, this is getting serious!”

Van Haaster is on top of the world in handball – only in a different discipline than she might have thought 25 years ago.

Also away from the courts, Van Haaster has her life firmly on track.

In 2019, when a relationship ended, she sold her house, quit her job, and went to South America for half a year – with a backpack and her crutches.

In 2022, 20 years after the discovery of her disease, she went on a walking tour in the Swiss mountains.

Alongside a part-time job for three days a week, Van Haaster is in her second year of kinesiology education and has just started her own practice ‘Balance of Joy.’

Her inspiring journey has taught her a lot. And no, it’s certainly not only about ‘just doing it’ once you get in such a life-changing situation.

“Don’t run away from it, go through those sad moments – but pick yourself up again and find out what you can do next,” Van Haaster says. “And you can do so much more if you are open for it.”

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