1 on 1: Jennifer Farrell

The "[link=http://houstonhandball.org/content12.html]1 on 1[/link]" interview series debuted back in 2005 as an add on feature to the [link=http://houstonhandball.org/]Houstonhandball.org [/link]website. What better place – and time – to revive this feature than right here, on THN.

While navigating the cyberspace over the summer, I caught up with my old friend, USWNT member, Jennifer Farrell. You may recall that she was the subject of [link=http://teamhandballnews.com/request13.html]my first THN podcast interview[/link], in the spring of 2006. Since then, Jen and I tried to get together for another interview but the timing was never right. Given Jennifer’s travels, we figured cyberspace may be our best option. We were both right. And just in the nick of time. Jennifer is, once again, on the move…

[color=#0000ff]Jennifer: – Hi Bogdan! I have a few hours before I get on the plane and thought I would answer some of your questions…[/color]

[color=#ff0000]Bogdan: – Hi back at you! First things first. Where the heck have you been, Jen?[/color]

[color=#0000ff]Jennifer: – Let’s back up to 2007. In August of that year, I left for Montpellier (France), after the WNT residency program ended when we lost our Olympic/World Championship qualifications. I was one of three WNT players who went off to France, the other two being Kathy Darling and Megan Ballard. I spent 2007 playing with a team in Montpellier, in the National 2 division of the French League, which is actually the fourth division. I was very lucky to be part of a great group of players, but the most exciting part was my coach, Laurent Puiseguer, who was the former captain of the French National Team. He was an amazing coach, and worked really hard to integrate me with other players on the team. My first pre-season was SO hard, but at the end of it, we went off on a [link=http://www.facebook.com/photos.php?&id=1302828&s=6&hash=6e6c831d0630c00893619dddb23d0a86#/album.php?aid=2073312&id=1302828&op=12]weekend camping adventure in the Pyrenees[/link], and went climbing and canoeing and it really brought us close together. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the French teams a lot. [/color]

[color=#0000ff]In the beginning of 2008, I had an opportunity to move up to the National 1 division with a team in St. Etienne, so I took the opportunity to go and play there, but unfortunately I broke my foot within the first few weeks and spent the rest of the season on the sideline. Not the highpoint of my French handball experience!
In August 2008, I moved to Lyon to play with a team in Division 2, where the level of play made a significant jump to what is considered the semi-professional level. There were some players on pro contracts, others on developmental contracts, so the level varied player-to-player the but the league play was extraordinary. Again, I was very lucky to have a great coach who was very understanding of my situation and really interested to help me improve. The team practiced 5-7 times a week, up from 3-4 times at the National 1-2 level. The intensity was much greater.[/color]

[color=#ff0000]Bogdan: – Looking back – what do you make of the opportunity to play and live in France?[/color]

[color=#0000ff]Jennifer: – I am really glad I had the opportunity to go to France. When the US residency program ended, I knew that the only way I could improve my skills and really get handball experience was to go to Europe, and we were lucky that at the time our former WNT coach Christian Latulippe had some contacts there. In June 2007, I went to try-out for the team in Montpellier and was pleased when they decided to take me, and help me work out a place to stay and a way to live. The handball in France is extremely organized, and I think we learned a lot in the first year about how it works. There are a lot of complications that go along with playing in the French league: contracts, paperwork, and player licenses. The rules about licenses were very complicated, especially for players from outside of France and the European Union, things were heavily regulated. That was one reason that Kathy, Megan, and I could never play together- only one foreign player from outside the Europe Union could be on a roster. That limited our choices for teams, as we couldn't go to any other team with a Canadian or Chinese or Brazilian, or whatever, and clubs had to be picky about the foreign players they took.
The first year in France was the hardest- by far. Handball-wise, it was stressful, because I didn't know the drills, the plays, and couldn't understand what the coach was saying 80% of the time.
By the second year, things were going MUCH better, and I had a greater sense of how things worked within the teams, the club, the league, ect. I felt much more at ease and knew what to expect from the coaches, players, and club administrators. [/color]

[color=#ff0000]Bogdan: – Was there culture shock? If so, how did you deal with it?[/color]

[color=#0000ff]Jennifer: – I had taken French in high school, so I arrived being able to understand most of what people were saying to me, but even still it was ten times harder than I ever imagined. Kathy, Megan, and I were split up all over France, so when I arrived, I didn't know anyone. There were a few girls on the team who went out of their way to help me out, but I wasn't prepared for the isolation I felt. I am an outgoing person, but most of the girls on my team had played with each other for years, some of them since they were children, so breaking into the group was kind of hard. Most of my teammates were really nice, but they would tease me about the little things like my socks, or my accent, or the way I cheered for my teammates on the court when they did something well (they thought it was hysterical, apparently cheering during practice isn't part of French handball culture!). For the rest of my life, I will always be sensitive to people who come from somewhere else, because it is hard to be different.

As far as life goes, it seemed like nothing in France could ever be done quickly- even getting a bank account, or internet (Kathy and I laugh that it took us like 8 months to get internet, right in time for us to leave!). Getting my residency permit was a nightmare the first year, and I couldn't play without it. I spent several months ineligible to play because the French government took such a long time sorting out my paperwork. However, once you figure out the system, you can make it work for you. By year two, I think Megan, Kathy, and I were all experts on how to get things done in France, because we had hit every hurdle in the first year.
For all of its difficulties, there were a lot of great things about the French culture. They know how to enjoy life, they spend a lot of time with their families and friends, and the social aspect of life is important.[/color]

[color=#ff0000]Bogdan: – What was your impression of the French socialized healthcare system? Have to ask, given that healthcare is currently at the forefront of US politics? :)[/color]

[color=#0000ff]Jennifer: – The medical system was incredible, and I don't have enough positive things to say about it. Whenever I was hurt or sick, I got great care, at almost no cost to me, and it was fast and efficient. I also think that within the club, there was a big emphasis placed on athlete health and well-being. There was a team doctor and trainer, and injured athletes almost never played. Kathy and I used to laugh that we were afraid to tell the trainer when we had a small problem, because he would want you to get treatment twice a day for a week and you would definitely not practice or play. I think we come from a culture of "tape it up" and get on with it, but they definitely don't roll like that in France. The trainers didn't even have tape- if you needed tape, you didn't need to play.
We were also surprised by the athletes attitude towards health. A lot of the athletes smoked and drank during the season, which shocked me, especially when we would have to pull the team bus over every two hours for a team smoke break. That would NEVER happen with the US WNT!! Even dessert was forbidden when we were at competitions, and drinking and smoking were definitely prohibited.[/color]

[color=#ff0000]Bogdan: – Please describe how your game fit in with the French style; US vs France club level — if you will. Generally, American athletes/players – save for the NBA – tend to be more physical than skillful. Was this the case in your situation?[/color]

[color=#0000ff]Jennifer: – Yes. From a physical preparation perspective, I think the US culture puts more emphasis on it. When I was in Div. 2, we would do 5 pushups once a week, and there was no weight lifting. We did a lot of running, having one day a week of hardcore high intensity interval stuff, but for the most part, practice was spent doing practice. Pre-season was for running until you die so that you could do train and play from August until June. The season lasts forever.

I don't think anything could have prepared me for all of the challenges I faced in the first year, it was easily the most difficult year of my life. Thankfully Kathy and Megan and I would stay in contact by text messages or emails, and we got together once or twice during the few breaks we had, and that helped. Although it was challenging, I learned a lot and had some really incredible experiences, and I think that is why I really wanted to stay another year, so I could benefit from my experience and really get a lot of my time there.

Handball-wise, I learned a TON. Not just from a skill-perspective, but about what real handball looks like from an organizational level. The French Handball Federation is amazing, there is so much going on from the National team level down to the kiddie club level. It was great to be a part of that, to see how things could be. I think it was an inspiration for the three Americans to see what we would like to see the USA doing in the future.

There is no doubt the level of play is higher in France. I played in the second, third, and fourth division and at each level there were several incredible players that, had they been American, could have easily been the star of our national team. At the higher, professional level, like Division 2, some of my teammates had played for National Teams of other countries (Ivory Coast or Tunisia) and some that had been on the Youth National team for France. Athletically, they were good athletes, but not necessarily better than the girls on the US WNT, but their skills were just amazing. They saw the court better, they had three times as many moves in their repertoire, they had incredible foot speed and precision.

Even at the U-18 level, the sophistication of the play was better. But these athletes had also been playing since they were young kids, and there was a system in place to identify talented young kids and put them on regional teams "Pole Espoirs" (the regional hopefuls) so they could train and prepare for the National Team or professional level.

There was also a concept that within a large club, a talented athlete could move up through the club, from the U-16 to the Pre-National to the National 2/3 and eventually to the Division 1/2. There was upward mobility for talented athletes within a club and lots of opportunities to play at every level. Even the younger kids would play a full-season of 20-30 games against 12-14 different teams, not counting friendly matches and summer tournaments.

Kathy and I have also discussed how some of these concepts could be useful in USA handball. The older players from the Division 2 or National 1 team would often coach the younger kids of the club, and it gave coaching experience to the older players, saved the club money because they didn't pay for separate coaches for the younger teams, and also gave the young kids something to aspire to. The mentorship role of the older athletes in the club was great. I think if the USA WNT ever had a residency program again; it would be great objective to have the WNT players coaching the youth clubs in a particular region.[/color]

[color=#ff0000]Bogdan: – I really am happy that you had the opportunity to witness and experience firsthand the developmental team handball process. I also believe that for all their work, the current US handball hierarchy continues to miss the point on what it takes to grow the sport of handball in the US. Yet, even to an American, the blueprint is rather obvious. How about your game. Has it improved?[/color]

[color=#0000ff]Jennifer: – I like to think I made some improvements. I definitely learned a different way of doing many things. I think it was really frustrating in the beginning because my coaches wanted me to un-learn many of the things I had learned in the USA. They didn't like the way I did some things, and would try to teach me a different way of doing things, which was very hard in the beginning. When you've always thrown one way, or jumped one way, and suddenly you have to re-learn how to do that, it can be difficult. I think the French coaches probably had a good laugh sitting around talking about all of the ridiculous things that the American kids did on the court.
The best part about playing in France was seeing what good handball looked like, at games and in practice every day. Being surrounded by better players, makes you better. When you have people playing harder defense on you, you have to work harder to make a pass or get to the goal. When you have better goalies, you have to be smarter and more precise with your shooting. That kind of everyday challenge makes you better, no matter what.
Tactically, defensive strategy was different as well. I learned a lot about what a good, team defense looks like. It is not an individual skill, it is a team skill, and I think the French did that very well. Offensively, I learned a lot of techniques as a circle, and how to watch my backcourts, because we didn't use a lot of plays. The offense was very fluid, and I had to learn how to move with my teammates. In the beginning I would run into them, because they moved a lot faster, or had better fakes and faster reflexes than what I was used to with the WNT, but eventually I picked up on it, and learned to adapt.

Even though I always struggled to be at the same skill level as my teammates, the one thing I definitely brought with me was a sense of hustle and dedication. My teammates laughed at me in the beginning because when the coach blew his whistle, I would run, because that's how things worked in the USA. Hustle and attitude is very important with the WNT, and I tried to maintain that even if it wasn't so much a part of French culture. Even if I couldn't be the best person on the court, I always wanted to work hard, and I think my teammates respected that.[/color]

[color=#ff0000]Bogdan: – You make some great points. I too had a hard time adjusting to the American style of handball. As a pivot playing in Romania, I would always feed off of what the offense offered/showed. In the US, “coaches/trainers/experts” would often have plays set for the circle runner which took away from the beauty and fluidity of the game. Be that as it may – let’s change gears a bit. What have you heard from your French counterparts regarding this year’s Miami “Coupe De La Ligue”?[/color]

[color=#0000ff]Jennifer: – I was surprised that I didn't hear as much about this as I expected. To be honest, I think the idea was brilliant, and I was really looking forward to seeing how it turned out. I guess at that point in the season, my team was struggling to maintain their place in Division 2 after a couple of difficult losses, so my club and team were really focused on our own season. I will say that everyone definitely seemed to know it was going on in Miami, and all of them thought it was cool (and wish they could have been there!), but as far as how it turned out, I never heard much feedback from the French side of things.

As an aside, the year before, France hosted the Women's World Championship, and that was a REALLY big deal. I went to see a lot of games that were held regionally during the preliminary rounds and even made it to Paris to see the semi-finals and finals. The club got tickets for a lot of the early rounds, and we went to see the games as a team. When I was there, I recognized tons of people from around the French handball community, and it was great to see the stadiums filled with people. As a WNT, it was hard to watch since we had tried to qualify and lost, I couldn't help but wonder what it must be like to be on the court. But I had an amazing time as a spectator, and once again it was really motivating to watch these teams perform at such a high level. I think it gave us all a sense of where the US will have to be if we want to really compete on the world stage.[/color]

[color=#ff0000]Bogdan: – What are you up to now?[/color]

[color=#0000ff]Jennifer: – I am back in the US now, finishing up a Master's degree that I began in France. I am also applying to medical school in the USA, so hopefully I will start that in the fall of 2010. Having spent the last 5 years doing nothing but handball, it is hard to see myself prioritizing something else in my life, but I am looking forward to going to medical school, since I've been wanting to do that for a long time. I hope I can find opportunities to play and be involved in handball in the US, and of course hope I can stay in the WNT pool as long as I am able, there really is no greater joy than getting on the court with my old teammates and putting on a USA jersey.[/color]

[color=#ff0000]Bogdan: Speaking of the USA jersey. What are your thoughts on the new US Federation and how do you feel that it compares with the former?[/color]

[color=#0000ff]Jennifer: – It is funny, I feel so far removed from anything going on in USA handball right now. When I was with the WNT residency program, I think all of us felt like we were a major part of things, mostly because at the time there was no Federation, so everything we were doing, everything we wanted to do, we kind of had to do for ourselves. I think we were really resourceful during those years, with the support of a lot of great people in the handball community, including former players, WNT committee and members of the Foundation.

Now, I am not sure if I have actually even met anyone from the new Federation, and I feel like I'm way outside of the loop. However, based on what I'm seeing on their website, and twitter, it sounds like they have a lot of great things going on, so good for them. They are definitely getting things done, putting camps together, sending players overseas, so we've definitely come a long way from not having a Federation. I have to applaud their efforts to put their ideas into action.

I would like to see more happen with the WNT, in the two years that I've been gone, we have only gotten together once for a week-long camp in Chicago and then a competition in Mexico. I understand there is a lot going on in the development of regional camps and teams, but I think we need to keep a senior WNT in place, training, together on a regular basis, and playing games.

I am hopeful that this new Federation will move the USA in the direction of international success, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I would love to see the club system evolve to something like what I saw in France, with many players aged 3-50 playing at all different levels all over the country, even in the really small towns.[/color]

[color=#ff0000]Bogdan: – What are your thoughts on the current USWNT situation.[/color]

[color=#0000ff]Jennifer: – I don't know what's next for the USWNT, but I hope there is more to come. By the sounds of it, there is some young talent coming up, and I think it is great that we still have a core of girls who trained in the residency program that are still interested in playing. We also have three girls, who played at the Division 2 level in France, and Jen Haubrich is in Germany now, no doubt making excellent progress, and I think that can only do great things for us.

However, individual skills will only take us so far, I think part of what we need to do is have more opportunities to play and train together. The foreign players I played with in France always spent the summers doing camps and tournaments with their National Teams, but we're not there yet.

I also think, in an ideal world, there will be another residency program for the younger girls, to get them opportunities to train and play on a regular basis so that they can eventually go to Europe. I really believe that we need to have 10-15 players in the Division 1/2 level in Europe if we are going to be competitive. Ivory Coast, for example, has almost their entire team playing in France right now, and that is how they are making progress at the international level. And trust me, having played with some of the Ivorian girls, their resources aren't nearly as good as ours are, so we should be making better use of them.

When I got back from France this summer, I talked with Marko, who is the head coach for the WNT, and I think he is hoping to organize more training and playing opportunities this year. I think it is nice that we have someone on staff full-time who knows who the players are, has been to competition with us, and is working closely with the Federation to organize things. It is not an easy job, but I think he is really dedicated to seeing results, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years.[/color]

[color=#ff0000]Bogdan: – Well Jen, you have certainly experienced, learned and certainly shared a lot with me and the THN readers. I must also say that you have sacrificed a lot in order to dedicate yourself to playing the sport you love. Your determination and personal sacrifice are admirable as both are qualities that are essential to the proliferation of team handball in the US. Players such as you, Kathy and Megan represent the new generation of US team handball trailblazers. Having said that – what is next for you?[/color]

[color=#0000ff]Jennifer: – Currently I'm going to school and getting my life together! For the first time since I graduated from college, I will be in charge of my own life, so I am looking forward to having a bit of a break from going to handball practice every day. At the same time, I will continue to work out and stay fit, and play handball whenever I get the opportunity. I will be in New York city this fall, so I will try to work with Cap (Cappleman, Chris) and Fitzy (Fitzgerlad, Tom) to see if we can get some women together to play!

In terms of future – I don't know what it holds for me, but I don't think I will be able to continue my life without handball in some capacity. I know I will not be an athlete forever, but I think because of what I've experienced with the WNT and being overseas, I have a lot to give back, and at some point I hope I can do that in a meaningful way. We have a lot of progress to make if we want to see this sport grow, and I think those of us that have been given a lot by this sport- especially the National Team athletes- should try to give back in return, in whatever role they can.[/color]