1 on 1: Carving your own path! An interview with Mark Ortega.

Hailing out of “Cristian Zaharia’s Miami Sharks handball factory”, arguably one of the most successful current US Team Handball players, member of the US MNT, at six foot and change, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome – Mark Ortega!!!

Alas, catching up with Jen Farrell was tough. It would have been impossible, if not for cyberspace.
Not so with Mark Ortega. Despite the many miles Mark traveled over the last several years while diligently carving a very successful professional career in Europe, Mark and I hooked up several time in that span. Most recently in Miami this past spring, where, like most every other US team handball fan, he was at the American Airlines Arena showing his support for the Frenchies. Mark and I talked about doing a story based on Mark’s experiences so far in his couple of years of European professional handball. Mark also wanted to give other aspiring US athletes and THN readers a different perspective of what is like to be USA Team Handball player.


BP: Let’s jump right in, Mark… Why the sport of team handball? What was your motivation?

MO: My Dad was the President of a large Student Bible Ministry (Encounter with Christ). He selected groups of students for short-term mission service. Five of our mission trips were to Olympic Games. That is when I became passionate about becoming an athlete for the USA. We had six kids in our family so, instead of my Dad working a secular job in addition to running a full-time ministry, he would send my Mom and six kids to work. In this way he could put all of his effort into leading the ministry. So, at a very young age I learned to be a hustler. I sold everything to support my Dad's work. In doing so I not only learned how to sell, I got to travel on all of the Mission trips. I was able to visit over 20 countries before I was 20 years old. All four boys in our family were great athletes; our two sisters were not. My brothers and I all had opportunities to play football or basketball in college. My older brother Ruben was a QB at Ohio State University. I competed in Gymnastics from age six to sixteen. My Father died suddenly when I was sixteen; at that time I began playing every other sport: track, basketball, wrestling, football (any sport I could get my hands on). I ended up playing football at Kent State University and Malone College. After college I decided to pursue my passion: being an Olympian. First, I looked at all Olympic sports to see where I could best help Team USA. It came down to Handball, Boxing, Luge, and Bobsledding. I chose Handball, because it was the most team-oriented and combined all of the athletic movements I had developed through many sports.

BP: Had no idea you were such a polyvalent athlete. I mean, luge and bobsledding were on your list? WOW! So what happened next, after you picked team handball?

MO: I called the Olympic Training Center and met Mike Cavanaugh over the phone. He gave me the number of the Men's National Team coach in Miami (Christian Zaharia). My new coach and Handball mentor was starting a club in Miami. At the first practice for Florida International University Handball (now the Miami Sharks), there were three athletes and Coach Zaharia. Over the next five years, I was just like everyone else in the USA who was committed to playing handball: working full-time (I was a Real Estate agent selling properties in Miami), then driving to Handball practice — one hour each way, two or three times a week. After two years of Handball, I was selected to take my first trip with team USA — Santiago, Chile. My second trip was to Aracaju, Brazil. These two trips were great. However, a wake-up call came when Coach Zaharia sent me to the training camps of two teams. The first was with Dinamo Bucharest in Romania. This was the first time that I truly watched and played in a high level of Handball. The second trip Coach Zaharia arranged was for me to play in the highest league in France with Club Paris. The team was unbelievable. Six of their members at the time were playing with the French National Team. From that time on, I realized that every day I was not playing in Europe, I was slowing down the efforts to better Team USA. After returning from France, I trained twice as much while in the US. I started to do individual workouts with Coach Zaharia.

BP: Must be nice having a coach who can facilitate such unique international opportunities! What was your handball European experience like? When and how did you actually make “the jump”?

MO: My first connection in Europe was a random email from a kid who was playing handball in the Fourth League Club in20Spain. He was a fan of American sports and had been to the U.S. on vacation when he witnessed USA Handball first-hand. His email was seeking any USA Athletes who wanted to play Handball in Spain. Two months later I found myself on the way to Santander, Spain, playing in their Forth League. I was promised a place to live and a job. In order to play at a higher level, I had to start somewhere. So, I arrived in Santander and met my new friend Miguel. I know Miguel had the best intentions for me. The first day I was there I went to practice with my new team and stayed at Miguel's house with his parents and brother who also played on the team. The next day Miguel woke me up and said, “We are going to try out with another team”. So, we proceeded to the tryout with a team about 40 miles away. This team offered me about $800 a month and really wanted me to play for them. I ended up telling them, "no", because I had made a promise to the coach from Nuevo, where I was promised a job and place to live. However, two weeks passed; Miguel decided to tell me that they are not going to give me a place to live, after all. So, I found myself with a team that was not keeping its promise, and having turned down another team who wanted to give me money. I signed with Nueva Montana, but with an open contract so I could leave to another team. The team supplied a job for 50 Euros a week working at a club bartending (too bad I did not speak Spanish and have never bartended).

BP: That’s admirable. I mean that! How did you adjust to your new lifestyle?
MO: There is nothing funnier then telling Spaniards who are drunk that you cannot speak very much Spanish and you are an American. They just kept talking, and I kept nodding my head. It was truly comical. After going to the local University and looking for an apartment on the bulletin board, I ended up living with two random Spanish guys who just needed another roommate. I paid 150 Euros a month. Let’s just say that I sacrificed that year for the love of Handball! I can make a lot of meals from potatoes and eggs. As far as my handball regimen went, I was lifting and practicing six or seven times a week and had games every weekend. I averaged from six to ten goals a game. My coach was a very nice guy but because he didn't like speaking English, he left the entire play calling to me. My coach's friend (who would show up for one or two practices a week) taught me a lot of handball. He is now a coach in the highest league in Spain. Overall, I think the New York team from this year's U.S. Nationals (2009), would beat our Spanish team. Santander, Spain was a beautiful city, and I made some great friends from all around the world. I would give my overall experience in Spain about a six-and-a-half out of ten. It was a building block. I had to look ahead to the next season, and I needed to be able to tell a team in a higher level that I had played handball in Spain for one year.

BP: Come to think of it, you were living the dream. Playing handball and living abroad. Just like Jen Farrell, Kathy Darling and others – you had certainly sacrificed a lot for the good of the sport you embraced. I think it is important to mention how difficult life can be – even when, in hindsight, it may look like a fun affair. I assume that your next project was to find a team in a higher, more competitive level?

MO: Exactly. My last eight games in Spain were filmed. From those, I compiled a highlight video, which was [link=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlBavwls288]posted on YouTube[/link]. I proceeded to send the link to every relevant handball-related email I could get my hands on; Denmark, Norway, Germany, Finland, Sweden and any other country I could find. I browsed every Federation’s website along with European club websites to find email addresses. I sent over 300 emails to teams and coaches. I received only three responses from the emails and my YouTube posting. Let’s just say I was not happy with the result! Coach Zaharia forwarded to me an email that a European handball agent sent to the European Handball Federation. I contacted the agent (John M – who was looking to represent international athletes) who said he would look for a team for me. I was in the U.S. for the summer. I knew that no team would fly me over overseas just to go to a tryout. So I convinced John that I should buy a ticket to Denmark, and that once I was there he could send me wherever the “wind blew”. Luckily, the wind started blowing right away. I got to Denmark and John wanted to see the level I should be playing at, so I practiced with a team in the highest Danish league. I was not ready for that level, so I practiced with a team in the second highest league in Denmark. While John felt that the second league level was a good fit for me, the team unfortunately did not need any players. John and his family had invited me to stay in their home the whole week without even knowing me. From the beginning of my handball quest until Denmark, this was the most help I had received from anyone other than my coach. I was grateful that someone like John went out of his way to help a USA MNT member advance his handball career. John put me in a sport college for the weekend and came back to me on a Sunday at 10 at night. He said there were teams in Iceland and in Germany that needed players, and he would know more on Monday. One hour later he walked back in my room with an Atlas in his hand and said, "There is a team which is really interested; it's in the second best league in Norway." I said, "I know where Norway is." He replied, "But, do you know where Alta, Norway is?" Now, if you don’t know where Alta, Norway is, go Google it. I am serious; go look it up. GO. The team told me that if I’d buy the plane ticket, they’d reimburse. I bought a one-way ticket that night.

BP: I did look ALTA up. It is pretty darn north. Can’t believe that anyone would play handball over there. This of course brings us full circle to one of my posts right here on THN. Almost a year to date, Mark signed the contract with Alta IF.

MO: As you can see, Alta is just below the highest latitude line. When I arrived, I met with the team Manager (Bengt). After about an hour of talking he asked me when my ticket back home was. I told him I bought a one-way ticket. He looked at me with a smile. I stayed for the entire season. During the first practice I was interviewed by both of the local newspapers and they were very excited to have an American handball player in Alta (Altaif.no). In Alta, I experienced two months of darkness; rode a snow mobile; touched a reindeer; ate a reindeer; rode a snow mobile; drove a van through ice-covered mountains; witnessed the Northern Lights; made a lot of great friends; and I slayed a dragon. Alta is also home to the largest dog sled race in Europe. Between these amazing adventures I also played a lot of handball in the second-best league in Norway. All of our games required flights within Norway. I played in all of the second team games as well – a total of about 35 games. I was able to get a key to the gym and I would show up there sometimes in the middle of the night just to get in extra work. I became more of a gym rat than anything. The team paid for my apartment, gave me a little money and got me a part-time job at the only gym in town. We practiced five days a week. I lifted two or three times weekly and had my own workouts. I got a lot better in Norway. The city of Alta had a soccer team as well, also in the second division. I lived in Dorm Hall with a lot of these soccer guys. There was one other American in the town that played soccer (Jay Needem). Jay is now playing in his second season there. By comparison, the Alta IF handball team where I played was better than any U.S. team. I loved Alta. The biggest challenge I had in Norway was with my coaches. I had three in one season. The first coach was also a player. He played the center back position, which was the same position I played at. Thus, I had the opportunity to play at every other position during that season. I felt I learned a lot of handball in Norway as I got to play everywhere both on offense and defense. Mid-season, Alta hired another coach, who could only come to about half the practices. I never had an open line of communication with him. Although I had some issues with coaching, I was very satisfied with the amount of playing time I got in Alta.

BP: You mention coaching issues. What type of issues?
MO: My first coach was also a player. By the end of week nine of the season he had decided that he could not handle being a coach and a player. He just decided to be a player. So from that point on, the Assistant Coach, who did not want to accept the role of full time coach, reluctantly did as much as he could. Alta then decided to hire a coach with more experience. He lived in Oslo so he would only come to practice on Fridays, before games. This setup worked against me as I had no time to show the new coach what kind of player I was. That is why for the remainder of the season I played at all positions. The lack of consistency was what I had an issue with.

BP: So many miles apart and engulfed in lots of darkness, it sounds to me like Alta IF was the light at the end of the tunnel for you.
MO: It certainly was. I would also like to mention that the city of Alta was always very supportive of the local handball team. Every game was packed. I would compare the fans in Europe to the fans of US college football; very committed to their town and teams. I would have never dreamt of living in Alta, Norway. But it is one of those towns that I will take my kids to some day. I loved Alta. Unfortunately, Alta was relegated to a lower division.

BP: So now you are back in the US, recharging your batteries. Can we all assume that your handball career will take you back to Europe yet again?
MO: You bet! I get to do this all over again. At this point, I plan to play handball for the next five to seven years. I have my own personal goals, all detailed out – but I prefer to keep them to myself for now. This season I am in Germany. Of course there will still be bumps on the road and for me at least, is very normal. I would also like to say that I am very happy that there is a sudden rise of USA team handball players playing in Europe. Jordan Fithian, Gary Hines, Patrick Oliver, Keith Fine, Adam Elzoghby and a couple more coming over in February, are an added motivational factor for me to do better.

BP: What is your ultimate goal? What will make you look back one day and say to yourself: “I made it!”
MO: Hard to say. I can tell you that my biggest goal right now is to make it to the Olympic Games with the US MNT. So, I will continue to pursue my Olympic goal and nothing would make me happier than Chicago receiving the nod for the 2016 Olympic Games. Of course there is always 2012.

BP: Well said. You should get involved in politics! Any closing comments?
MO: If you fail to plan you plan to fail.

Story on Mark Ortega, translated from Norwegian local newspaper: http://teamhandballnews.com/news590.html.9