This is me: Cristina Varzaru
Her career could have been over early due to a knee injury. She came back through excruciating pain to win the EHF Champions League Women title three more times and was the top goal scorer in one season. In total, Cristina Varzaru won four titles and was among the leading right wings. Here is her story, in her own words.
This is me: Cristina Varzaru
“Mens sana in corpore sano.” This is the famous saying which has guided me all my life, since I was a little girl. It all started with my parents, both of whom were teachers, trying to raise their children in the healthiest way possible. I owe them a lot, basically everything I have now because it would not have been possible without them.
I have a twin sister and we both started handball at the same time, in a small city on the banks of the river Danube. I was always competitive. I wanted to be the first in everything I did. This is why, maybe, I had the chance to play for teams that have always fought for titles.
Here’s a fun fact. I never knew I could throw the ball with my left hand. It happened naturally, because at my first training session I threw the ball with my right hand and had the shortest throw in the team. When I moved the ball to my left hand, I threw the longest.
I started to play as a centre back, because the coach thought that I had the right handball IQ for that position. It also helped that I was named the most technical player when I became a national age-grade champion with CSS Corabia, the hometown team.
When I received an offer to move to a bigger city in Romania, one of the biggest handball cities – Ramnicu Valcea – questions came my way. I told you already that my parents were teachers, and school was of the utmost importance. Therefore, I made a promise to myself and to them that I was going to still be a model student in school.
So. there I was, aged 16, uprooting from Corabia and moving to Valcea, because they considered that both myself and my sisters were going to be better off in a bigger city, and closer to a better university.
I have always thought I make the right decisions, irrespective of how difficult they were, but moving to Valcea was surely one of the best. Above all because I made my debut in the Champions League, scoring six goals against Italian side, Rimini, before I had graduated high school.
I was 16 years old at the time and the world was opening up in front of me. Several month later I received an offer from Hypo Viena. I was still in the 12th grade, the last one of high school in Romania. Their right wing, Iris Morhammer, was injured and they needed a replacement for her and I was already playing on the right wing, due to the speed and the fact I was a left-hander.
Back to the story. Despite Hypo’s president, Gunnar Prokop, calling me personally, I declined the offer, because I wanted to stay in Romania and finish my studies. It was the promise I made to my parents, and I kept it that way, because this is what defines me as a person.
“Girl are you crazy?,” everybody said at the time. Hypo were a true powerhouse, a Champions League contender season after season and not accepting their offer was unprecedented. Borderline crazy, some said, but time proved that I made the right choice.
After I ended my stint with Ramnicu Valcea, playing for Oltchim, I spent three years at Rapid Bucuresti, before moving to Viborg HK, in what was my defining period as a player and a human being.
It hit hard because the culture was different, and the attitude towards handball was different. I had to adapt and change because of this. The Danish people always see the glass half full, not empty. You will never see a storm in a teacup after a loss, the mentality is that it can happen, we are all human.
This makes you feel free, building up your confidence and feeling better with yourself. Which is hard to admit, especially if you are coming from a different culture. We have a saying in Romanian sport: “We are throwing up a wedding party at every win and there is a funeral for every loss.” Therefore, it is impossible to fully immerse yourself and rewire your brain, but this attitude really helped me enjoy handball more.
The time spent in Denmark changed my perspective of handball and fulfilled me as a person and as a player. The people I met in Viborg from the players to the coaches and the staff there, wow! They were amazing. Not only in good times, but also in bad times, when I felt like everything was crumbling.
First, let’s talk about the bad times, because there were some moments which could have totally changed my career. Nothing came easy for me, and looking at my achievements I could say I am pretty accomplished as a player.
Ok, so we had won the Champions League in 2006, which was a superb achievement. But just after that win, in 2007, I had knee surgery, and I did not play for 20 months. Yes, you read that correctly, there is not a mistake, there were 20 months in which I could not play.
Some doctors even told me that I should stop playing handball, because I would not be able to live a normal life. But I was stubborn, and I dreamed that I could play handball again. And I did!
It was not easy, not at all. At every step I took, there was a piercing pain, like a knife slicing through my body. Imagine when playing at full speed, imagine that you need to score a goal to keep your team alive in a game and all that you are feeling is that piercing pain. Constantly, with every step.
But, like I told you already… I was stubborn. And that stubbornness helped me to win the EHF Champions League Women two more times, in 2009 and 2010, with the same Viborg team, a star-studded line up, which is arguably one of the best teams ever assembled in the competition.
No, not because I was in it, but because we had some superb players, like Katrine and Kristine Lunde, Rikke Skov, Henriette Mikkelsen, Grit Jurack or Bojana Popovic made the core of that side. There were many others, many others that really helped Viborg win the trophy once again.
But every fairy tale has an ending, right? I was already over 30 – time flies really fast – and after seven years spent at Viborg I felt that it was high time to come back to Romania.
With my injury history, but with the pain starting to wear off, I started thinking about what was going to come after handball, after my playing career ended. I would never have imagined that with all the troubles, I was going to finish on a high, at 37 years of age. I would have said that you are crazy if you told me that.
So, it was 2012 and I signed for CSM Bucuresti, a team that was preparing for an ambitious trip. My plan was to play a single season. I ended up staying for five and won the Champions League again, which was a huge bonus for me.
It was the most unexpected thing, but that feeling was amazing. Because I was already making plans for life after handball, and there I was, in Budapest, lifting the trophy for the fourth time.
That final against Gyor was an emotional roller-coaster. It had everything and a superb ending. I could not have written a better one myself. In my heart, I am sure that it was the trophy that I enjoyed the most, that I celebrated the most and one of the best memories in my life.
It was also because I realised that the other knee had the same problem as the one that took me off the court for 20 months earlier in my career. It was 2015, one year before winning the last Champions League trophy and it was a promise I made to myself, that I will not suffer the same thing again and again.
I was prepared and in 2017 I retired with a smile upon my face. Right now, I have been a retired player for five years, and the previous plan, which was to become a coach, changed.
I was the Secretary General of the Romanian Handball Federation for four years and I also learned a lot in this period. It was a tough time, because there were many things said, but one thing that I learnt from my father, which is precious for me, is to be fair. This is why I always stuck to that and did the best I could.
But now, I have a new challenge. This summer I became the team manager of CSM Bucuresti, the team which helped me win my last Champions League as a player. I kept this a secret, but I really wanted to win another trophy. Not on the court, but next to it. I promised myself that I would try this when I retired.
Now I have the chance. Here. On my own terms.
This is my story, this is me, this is Cristina Varzaru. A girl that loved handball, a girl that made some tough, but good choices and was moulded by several challenges, which could have derailed my path.
Looking back on my playing career, my story is about how everything happened for a reason and at the right time and place, about the correct choices.
About how school and sport went hand in hand, without being an issue. It is a story about work ethic and discipline. About the right people coming into my life at the correct time.
Because I was always motivated by winning and performing at the highest level.