USA Women Chances for 2020 Olympic Qualification: A couple of stories to highlight what we’re up against

Brazilian school girls training in Rio. Some ride the bus an hour and a half to practice. Can the U.S. field a team in 3 years time to beat Brazilian athletes that come up through their grass roots programs?

Brazilian school girls training in Rio. Some ride the bus an hour and a half to practice. Can the U.S. field a team in 3 years time to beat Brazilian athletes that come up through their grass roots programs?

Go on twitter during an Olympic broadcast and you’ll find plenty of tweets from viewers wanting to know how they can make the USA team and play in 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.  The USA coaches are also surely fielding a number of inquiries regarding tryouts: Link

Hopefully, among those queries are some high quality athletes that aren’t too old so that they will have some time to develop into quality handball players.  Thing is, though, these would be National Team members should realize what they are up against.  That’s because qualifying for Tokyo is a real long shot.

Can Team USA close the huge gap with Brazil?

The Pan American region gets 1 slot for the Olympics (For 2016, since Brazil was host the Pan American regions got 2 slots) and this is awarded to the winner of the PANAM Games handball competition, something the Men haven’t done since 1987 and the women haven’t done since 1995.

For the women it will mean beating Brazil, which had an up and down tournament at this Olympics.  In group play they beat the bronze medalists, Norway, and finished first.  But, in the quarterfinals they suffered a surprising and disappointing loss to the Netherlands which finished 4th.

Brazil will have a number of players retiring in the near future, but they have many up and coming players. In fact, an experimental B side, largely composed of new talent beat Team USA 28-14, the last time the 2 nations met in formal competition at the 2015 Pan American Championships.  It can’t be definitively assessed how the USA would have fared against the top Brazil team, but scorelines from 2013 (44-10) and 2011 (50-10) might not be a bad indication. Further, according to online competition records, it appears the USA women have not beaten Brazil (or Argentina for that matter) since the 1995 PANAM Games.

What has happened since 1995? Well, all appearances are that Brazil has developed a fairly decent grass roots program that is identifying and developing talent well before most Americans even touch a handball.  This New York Times article was written to highlight the shortcomings in Women’s Athletics, but for me, it instead highlights a pretty decent development program.  For sure the U.S. would love to have even a handful of committed female athletes riding the bus an hour and half to play handball instead of some other sport.  Handball even well enough, according to the article, to beat a boy’s team!

New York Times: In the Shadow of the Olympic Park, Women’s Sports Lag Behind: Link

So, Team USA would have to make up a considerable amount of ground between now and August 2019, when the PANAM Games will be held in Lima, Peru.  And, remember, the USA women didn’t even qualify for the 2015 PANAM Games, losing to Uruguay in a 2 game series prior to the games.  Next time around the qualification path should be a bit easier with Canada being the primary opponent.

Can we find the phenomenal talent needed? Can we train that talent in 3 years time?

Can it be done? Well, anything is possible, but 3 years is not much time to work with.  It would be one thing if the USA had some young up and coming talent already training at Auburn, but for the most part the players are in their mid to late 20s (some even 30s).  A roster overhaul is really needed.  Heck, it was really needed 3 years ago when I wrote this commentary:  Link

And, the prescription is roughly the same today.  The USA would have to do some phenomenal recruiting and hope they can improve quickly enough to field a team that can qualify for the December 2017 World Championships.  This means just 10 months to assemble a team that can snag the 3rd place slot at the Pan American Championships in Canada.  A challenge, for sure, but conceivable as the quality of teams drops off fairly sharp after Brazil and Argentina.  Then playing in a World Championships which is a huge opportunity for team growth and experience.  Maybe a few players could be seen and signed to play professionally in Europe. 2018 and 2019 would then see a progression in growth whereby the US would catch up to Brazil to the point where beating them in a one off gold medal in August 2019 might be at least conceivable.

But, recruiting that top talent isn’t easy.  Maybe in all the emails sent to USA Team Handball there are some real gems willing to put in the time and hard work necessary, but I suspect that the raw talent is a notch or two below what is needed.  Why? Well as I’ve highlighted previously Div 1 athletes have more options than they did in the 70s and 80s.

Feb 2012: Air Force Basketball (Lessons for USA Team Handball): Lesson #2) Blue Chip Athletes from other Div 1 Sports are harder to come by nowadays: Link

As a more recent example look no further, then 29 year old, Danielle Page, bronze medalist for the Serbian basketball team.  Serbia? Huh?  Well, Page grew up in Colorado and played collegiately for Nebraska, before embarking on a pro career in Europe that eventually led to a Serbian passport.  She is exactly the type of athlete that would have been a natural for the US Women’s National team after a middling NCAA career.  Unfortunately, as her success story illustrates, those players have some pretty good alternatives that will preclude such a choice.

Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph (July 2015):Lewis-Palmer grad Page realizes Olympic dream with Serbian basketball team: link

Time to focus on 2024

Again, can it be done? Yes, but it’s so very, very unlikely.  Even if we get the talent needed there’s just not enough time to catch Brazil.  In my opinion, the U.S. should go ahead and try to qualify for 2020, but with both eyes squarely focused on the 2024 Olympics, which might even mean automatic qualification if LA hosts.  And, if you are focused on the long term that means every single athlete being considered even for competitions in 2016 should be assessed as to how they might fit into a potential 2024 roster.  Translation:  Add 8 years to their current age and assess what the likelihood is that “life issues” will impact them between now and then.

And, seriously look at some alternative ways to spend resources on grass roots to create some talent similar to the Brazilian method.  One solution:  How about a high school girls handball league in the greater Los Angeles area, maybe even partially funded by LA 2024 sponsor? Link

The question, though, is whether USA Team Handball will take such a position or whether the US will continue to focus on near term goals that are likely unachievable.