The zenith for the USA Women’s National Team

A happy bunch of U.S. players after their impressive win!

A happy bunch of U.S. players after their impressive win!

Some of you have given me feedback after my comments about the strong period of our U.S. National teams in the 1980s and into the early 1990s. I highlighted the remarkable success in the 1987 PanAmerican Games in Indianapolis, where our teams won very exciting finals on both the men’s and the women’s side. It is interesting to see that many of our handball players and fans today are quite unaware of the achievements at that time.

But for me personally, it is easy to single out one particular game as the absolute zenith on the women’s side, not simply because I was involved in the game as a referee (together with Bernie Iwasczyszyn) but because the result was really remarkable and created an echo in the handball world (even in those days without the help of the internet…). I am talking about the game where the U.S. team for the first (and only) time defeated the mighty Soviet women’s team. It happened at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., in the preparatory stages for the 1988 Olympic Games. The Soviets, who in those days were normally unbeatable, were on a brief tour of the U.S., literally on their way to Seoul. They were dominated by players from the Ukraine and the club team Spartak Kiev, under the strong leadership of legendary (or infamous) coach Igor Turtjin, whose wife was also the team captain.

You might say that one should perhaps not make a big deal about a ‘friendly game’. But for the Soviets there really was never such a thing as an unimportant game. Not just was this a preparatory game for the Olympics, it was also a particularly prestigious game in front of a large group of Eastern European ambassadors and dignitaries, together with representatives of the U.S. State Department. Ordinary spectators may not have sensed it, but there was almost a ‘Cold War’ atmosphere surrounding this game, and Washington TV stations covered this ‘political’ event. (I could add that long afterwards, I met players, including Mrs. Turtjina, who confirmed that the reaction to the loss on the part of their Federation and the Sports Ministry was quite dramatic. This involved physical punishment and disciplinary action, and it seems the players never forgot it).

In any case, the Soviets were aware that their opponent would not be a pushover, so they went all out from the outset. But our U.S. team held up well to the early onslaught and established an effective game of their own. Neither team managed to pull away so it was a see-saw battle. The game was relatively physical, but above all it displayed strong technical skills and good tactics from both sides. As a referee I can remember many critical moments with small differences between success and failure, and Bernie and I also had some tough calls to make, under pressure mostly from the vociferous Turtjin, whose histrionics at the bench caught the attention of photographers and TV cameras.

Well, without going into further details, the game really came down to the wire. The home team gained an 18-17 lead close to the end, but the Soviets had a great chance to equalize which they failed to utilize. The U.S. team got the ball back, but one of the referees (yes, I confess) called an offensive foul with about 20 seconds to go, much to the irritation of the U.S. players and coaches. I guess there were many of us holding our breath, as the final Soviet shot bounced off the inside of the goal post and almost went in, as time expired. The celebrations were ecstatic on the U.S. side, while the anger and frustration was palpable at the Soviet bench. No, this was not a game that they wanted to lose. Their only small consolation later that evening came when we took them to a restaurant with the biggest steaks and the most enormous salad bar that they had ever see. When I met some of them years afterwards, this was what they preferred to talk about…

One would wish that this would be the kind of situation that a U.S. handball team with its supporters and spectators would have a chance to experience at some point in the future! And I would once again want to take the opportunity to congratulate all the players and coaches involved with this very special game 25 years ago!