EHF Champions League

This is me: Barbara Arenhart

C4 9374
EHF / Courtney Gahan

A stalwart and history-making goalkeeper for her national team and a self-described nomad when it comes to club handball: Barbara Arenhart has spread joy across Europe in a career unfolding across eight different countries since she left her native Brazil. In the most remarkable year of her life, “Babi” both lost her mother and won the World Championship title — a duality that represents exactly who she is. The person behind the fiery attitude on court can be summarised in two words: Resilience and joy. Life brings challenges, and Arenhart has faced more than her fair share, yet has learned it is all about simply continuing on and finding the beauty in the process.

THIS IS ME: Barbara Arenhart

I didn’t have any contact with handball when I was a kid besides at school. But when I was around 10 or 11, one coach decided to start a kind of project at schools. There was no age limit and it was a mix of boys and girls, so we were a bunch of around 40 kids just having fun together. I started because my siblings also wanted to start. I have a younger sister, Amanda, who is one year younger and my brother, Guilherme, is four years younger than me. The three of us went with our school friends. So that’s why handball really got my attention — because everyone was going. I don’t have any tradition in the family in this kind of thing.

I’m the only one of my siblings who stuck with it. I actually have three siblings, but my older sister Cassia has down syndrome and didn’t play. She is the cutest of the family I have to say. My other sister played professionally. Later on, we were both playing in the Brazilian league. My brother played for much longer than my sister, until three or four years ago, when he got a second knee injury.

This school team — it was supposed to be just a project for kids, but the women’s team slowly became a club. We started going to national competitions and regular young team competitions until we played the Brazilian league for many years as a club. My family was totally into it. Mum was travelling with us. We were crossing Brazil by bus from my home city Novo Hamburgo — once we travelled 36 hours for a game. My parents were so supportive. We were not a club with financial services, so we were always doing something to gather money. My parents were involved from head to toe.

The hard days, that coaches were too harsh or so on, my parents never touched these parts. They were just holding us while we were crying and saying, “Life goes on. You need to learn from this.” But they were never like, “Your coach is a bad guy,” or something like this, so they understood the process of being an athlete pretty early, even though they had no experience with it.

My father and mother had very hard backgrounds — they were both very poor. They had to go through hard times, so they didn’t think they could spoil us in such a way that we wouldn’t learn from hard times. They said, “You had to go through it your own way. That’s the only way you learn.” They didn’t want to interfere because we needed to learn how to walk to through our own life and I truly appreciate it now that I realise what their approach has meant in my life.

2007, when I was 21, was the year I left home. I moved to a professional club in Sao Paulo in February, then in December I moved to Spain. The club in Sao Paulo was the best one in Brazil at that moment. I was a bit of a rebel teenager, and I surprised my parents with this news as I suddenly got the call, told them I got an offer and that I already said yes and I’m going in February. They were panicking a bit. You can always fly to Sao Paulo, but Brazil is so huge and this was the first time I would move away from home.

Then in December, I got a call from a friend that was in Spain, that her club needed a goalkeeper immediately. She called and I just said yes straight away. After the call, I had about five days to be home, and again I shocked my parents with the news I was moving, but I was completely fearless when I boarded the plane.

My family is very connected and we handled the challenge in part because of that. Being four siblings, and from the youngest, my brother, to my older sister, it’s only six years different, so we did everything together. Maybe from my parents there was some fear about me trying to follow this professional path, as in Brazil handball is mainly popular as a school activity, but they always encouraged me — although I wouldn’t have taken no as an answer anyway! For this first move to Spain, they found some money to send my sister Amanda to live with me for six months, so I wouldn’t be alone and living on another continent.

Now I have played at so many clubs and in so many countries — Spain, Norway, Austria, Romania, Denmark, Hungary, Montenegro and now Slovenia. I’m a bit of a nomad. It’s a passion of mine. I’m crazy about travelling and discovering and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to travel to that many countries and live in that many different cultures. I have something in my soul that has to search, to move. I’m in Europe now and it feels somehow like home here. I don’t know what the future will bring but for now I’m settled.

It is hard for some people to understand, being from a place so far away but also feeling like Europe is now my home. This question of where I would like to be comes often, for now but mainly after my playing career, and honestly I don’t know. For many years I thought I would never move back to Brazil. I love my country but it’s so different. Anywhere I will live, I will have to somehow start from the scratch.

I always say, “What the future brings, it brings.” Over this European summer, I was in Brazil for a little longer than usual and I got the feeling that I could easily move back. My family is here. I became an aunty for the first time, so this touched me in another way. I’m really attached to my family, so it’s heavy to say that I will live in Europe forever. I can see myself living in Brazil, of course. It’s my people, my culture. But I don’t have any decision made yet.

On this visit, when I just arrived in Brazil, I got this kind of existential crisis — where do I belong? I feel like I belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It’s a crazy feeling, but it’s also beautiful.

To live this way, you have to learn to be strong in yourself, but I had a head start because of my parents. I also think this Brazilian side in me will never change. There are things that makes us as people, as a culture in Brazil. Out in the world, I think you learn that it doesn’t matter what happens — there is always beauty, there is always some sparkle, there is always the bright side, so I always start with that.

I was raised this way. Watching my parents, listening to their story — I don’t mean it to sound dramatic but they were really fighting through life with four kids around and they succeeded in being great parents. Since we were kids, we learned that you fight for what you want and there is a lot of beauty and happiness in this process. We learned that the process is the happy part and I really brought this to my life.

I’m really proud of my parents’ story. The first crazy fact is that my father has 10 siblings. My dad was kid number seven or eight and the family could not afford to live together; my dad lived with his parents’ siblings. He started working at the age of seven, delivering milk and picking up the empty bottles, just to be able to have food for himself. It was rare he was with his whole family, and they didn’t have food for all of them. If my father’s mother was able to get three pieces of bread somewhere, they split it among all of them. By the time my dad was eight or nine, he was working and also responsible for his little brother, taking the baby everywhere when he was just a kid. My dad had to be responsible and grown up very early in life.

My parents met at primary school. Mum’s family was also very poor, but mum only has one sister. They had like one cow and a few chickens, so they exchanged milk and eggs for food. There was this kind of culture. So, my parents met and then my father went to the army, because it was mandatory at that time. They exchanged letters and my father still has the letters at home. They married pretty early. From my mum’s grandma, they got a small, very basic room to live in. In that time, they barely had the money to hold on for themselves, so they were also living with the help of relatives around.

My mum was 21 when she got pregnant and at the time there was no technology, so they found out my sister Cassia has down syndrome three months after her birth. She had some medical complications that they had to borrow money for. My father started to travel a lot, working, just to try to bring food in. The doctor said that Cassia would need a sibling to develop socially so they had me. The situation was still hard and my father was living on the road, so my mum was pretty much alone. My younger sister Amanda came along. My father was slowly building their life but he was giving up a lot of family time to travel, so he decided to open a company, which mum helped with until she was pregnant again. He took a loan to be able to go after this and now he’s owner of his company. When I was 15, he had a heart attack. In that moment, the company was going really bad, and then he almost went bankrupt because he needed to take a lot of the money from there for his heart.

Because of all this, I was learning about resilience since I was a small kid. I had perfect examples at home.

It was a big challenge with my first sister because everything was very unknown about down syndrome kids in that time. They told my parents that she wouldn’t live more than 19 years and she wouldn’t walk, eat, speak and these kinds of things. Now, she’s 39. She’s a healthy girl and the biggest love lesson for the whole family. I always say we’re very lucky to have her. Cassia is my father’s big love and to me she’s like a big kid; such a lovely human being. We lost my mum 10 years ago and now it’s just the two of them at home and Cassia is good. I wish everyone could have someone like her. It’s just pure love and you can never have enough.

I think we learned very early, with some life challenges, how to just cope. Life goes on. I saw my parents facing a lot of challenges with my older sister, including for her education, with doors just being closed in their faces many times. They always found the way, and I think that’s the biggest lesson for me. Just don’t stop. There is always going to be a reward, even if it’s emotional. Challenges will be there the whole life. My father still says that when I’m having a hard time over here or missing them too much: “You chose this life. This is not new for you. Just go on.”

I have come to understand that you cannot ask why things happen in life. 2013 was the brightest year of my career but was also the year I lost my mum. We, Brazil, were world champions. My mum passed away three months before that. She had skin cancer. I was living in Norway playing, in 2010, when they found out. A year later she was clear and stayed that way for a year, but in March 2013 I got the call from my parents to say the cancer was back. This was devastating, but my mum was fighting and she was going through chemotherapy and everything. As soon as I could go home, I went back to her.

That year I got to spend a lot of time with her, but then we found out the cancer had spread pretty much everywhere. Because I was away, I didn’t see her go through daily life suffering, and I was lucky for that. I talked to her every day and she was always happy on the phone — she was never complaining. I didn’t see her worst days. When I realised things were going really bad, it was around June, July 2013, and I decided to stay home.

I can see the memory clearly in my head, how mum and I were laying down in bed and it was just a few days until I had to come back to Europe. I told her I was not going anywhere; I would stay with her because I saw that I wouldn’t have much time left with her. She started crying and told me she could not accept this: “You need to go. You need to fight for your dreams. You would be giving up on your life and you’re not going to be happy, and if you’re not happy, you’re not helping me because then I’m not happy either.”  So, she convinced me to come back.

I was playing at Hypo in this time and had the same coach as the national team, Morten Soubak, who was so understanding. I went back home when mum broke her leg, related to the cancer spread, then returned to Hypo. A week later my dad called me and said, “If you want to see your mum alive, you need to come home.” I booked a flight immediately, arrived on Thursday at 11am and went directly to the hospital. She passed away on the Friday at 11am. I knew she was waiting for me and that I was going to say goodbye to her.

Morten told me not to come back until I felt like it. When I came back, I had big support all the time — from the girls, from the coaching staff. I was really taken care of and felt such an amount of love. The day of mum’s funeral was beautiful. My family and I felt so much love and support that we knew we could not just disappear as people. It helped us to carry on.

That was September, and by November we were in Serbia for the World Championship, which we won and where I was in the All-star Team. It was a rollercoaster, but I think I was strong enough not only because of the support around me, but something I never felt before play handball — some kind of power. The team stuck together a lot. It was not just me going through a hard time because of losing my mum. We had a lot of things happening and, for me, the beauty is the background that people would never know. Knowing what is behind the trophy and that you made it is what makes it special.

I couldn’t grieve while I was playing, so I had to be fully in the moment. When I heard I was in the All-star Team, I felt that my mum is really everywhere. I think she gave me some extra power. It was somehow beautiful. I still remember this year as the most remarkable year in my life because of everything that happened.

I learned that life is just now. My mum was a big role model for me and she found the joy even in the hardest moments. During that championship, I couldn’t afford to let my teammates down and I could not let my mum down. Even now, when games are hard, I ask my mum to help me. She’s so present in my life, really, and people around me know that. We’re always joking that when the ball goes to the post or something strange happens that my mum is here.

I joined the national team in 2006, when we were still just dreamers. I really have a lot of respect for the players that came before me. They were part of this process of becoming a serious national team. They qualified for the first Pan American Games, first Olympic Games, and so on — the history speaks a lot.

I’ve realised you cannot teach people how to get to the top. You need to go through the processes and now the challenge is getting everyone to believe everything is possible. You were there once and you know it’s possible, but it’s really hard to teach the process.

I guess this World Championship changed the view of Brazilian players. Back in time, we had to fight for respect. We are not Europeans and we’re pretty aware of the different image people might have of us. But achieving the gold medal meant way more than “just” a title. The biggest success is that we opened doors for younger players. Now, we have a lot of players residing in Europe and we have some kind of space.

The representation we have achieved for Brazilian players is very important, and I think any representation that helps break down barriers is a big gift we can give in this career. I once participated in an interview on national TV focused on combatting homophobia in sport. I was one among many invited, and at that time some people who are now prominent in the LGBT community were not ready to participate or be well-known for that part of themselves.

I came from a very loving family and of course it was not so easy for me when I decided to come out, to say it to my parents. First of all, you’re questioning yourself, so my mission is to somehow help people open up to themselves first, because for me personally that’s not a challenge. I grew up in a very loving environment, with family who are accepting and understanding, so this changes everything. I just wanted my family to know, then if I have the love and support from them, I feel fully protected.

I cannot judge people that decide not to open up because they have their own background. I have many friends that had a hard time accepting themselves in this respect, both men and women, but the important thing is to realise this doesn’t change who you are. It’s a very sad story that people still feel that there is a burden they’re carrying. There is a lot of fear. 

This representation — that’s why I gave this TV interview. I called my dad and told him I was going to do this interview, and he was super proud as he knew I could help people this way.

I never went through anything bad myself, but I have people close to me that were judged.  Any kind of discrimination, like racism, is still shocking for me. I don’t know how this still exists. As soon as you need to fight for rights, something is wrong, so it’s important to talk about but it is a shame we still really need to. It’s so necessary that people feel accepted and that they belong.

I’m really happy when friends around me come out with no fear, and then they’re finding themselves and feeling so happy. We need role models and we don’t need to say, “I accept you because you’re gay.” We should accept people as their whole selves and everyone should be able to be themselves. Life is much easier when you accept yourself. I wish everyone that freedom. It’s beautiful when someone is feeling good in their own skin.

In the sports context, we’re all here to perform, so nothing should stop you from that. As soon as someone is free in their mind to be themself in any way, you feel accepted, you can be yourself, you can perform and this is just a positive thing for everyone. My only wish is that everybody feels loved, accepted and free, because then the world would be a better place. It’s just about acceptance in every field and way.

You find people on the way that didn’t have this privilege to grow and to come from an accepting or supportive environment. Of course, I cannot change everyone’s life, but I think it is part of my life mission to express my opinion and to try to help people understand and accept themselves. I was able to have these positive experiences and no issues at all, so why not share this and help some people feel at least a little bit of empathy. If one person can change the way they look at themselves, this is already positive for me.

We’re always trying to find ourselves, and I think this life on the road somehow helps show us that and I’m so grateful. I’ve met so many good people along the way that made me happier. Life is an amazing thing and challenges just build you up to resilience, and then you can be there fully to find the beauty in every moment.


Barbara Arenhart
September 2023

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