Former UCF softball player Ashley Van Ryn spent thousands of hours throughout her life practicing and playing the game she loved from childhood. However, it was a mere two hours of watching television this summer that ultimately changed her life as an athlete.
"I had a tremendous time during my four years with UCF softball, but there really are not many professional outlets for softball athletes like myself," said Van Ryn, who shined as a starting outfielder for the Knights from 2005-08. "My time at UCF was pivotal to my growth as a person and an athlete. As I stopped playing softball and transitioned into a working professional role, I managed to keep myself in good shape as far as strength and conditioning goes. But I didn't have too many possibilities for team sports outside of rec league type stuff."
Like countless other Americans, Van Ryn discovered team handball by watching the 2012 London Olympics. She thought it looked really interesting and fun but was shocked and disappointed to learn that Team USA hadn't qualified for the event.
A quick Google search later, she uncovered the Georgia Handball Club based out of her hometown of Atlanta, Ga., and shortly thereafter, she attended her first practice in August 2012.
"I fell in love with the sport almost immediately," Van Ryn explained. "The sport is a blast to play, and the people I have met in the handball community make the experience even more fun. All of the players and coaches involved in handball on both the club and national level have been so welcoming and helpful in my progress in the sport. The more I play, the more I love it."
Handball is perhaps best described as an eclectic mix of basketball, hockey and lacrosse. Each team plays with six athletes per side plus goalies. Players can move the ball via dribbling and passing similar to basketball. You can take three steps without dribbling and can only hold the ball for three seconds without giving it up. Substitutions and penalties are similar to hockey as teams can swap players in and out on the fly and infractions are enforced with a one player advantage much like a hockey power play.
The game plays at a very fast pace with scores routinely in the 20s sometimes into the 30s. Defenders are allowed to use physical contact to stop attackers from approaching the goal, but only when the defensive player is completely in front of the offensive player. Particularly egregious penalties can result in penalty shots similar to hockey.
"I really had no idea about the rules, strategy or anything, but my home club (Georgia Handball Club) partnered up with the Chicago Inter Handball Club to form a co-team and they invited me to join their team," Van Ryn said. "They taught me all the ins and outs out the game. Because I was an outfielder for so many years, the overhand throw for handball was a natural transition for me."
Less than two months after her first practice, Van Ryn and her club team placed first in a pair of handball tournaments in October. The more experience she gained in both club matches and practices caught the attention of the USA Team Handball National Committee.
Van Ryn was invited to an exclusive Women's National Team Training and Selection Camp in early January at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Team USA training camp was intense as prospective athletes were put through a series of rigorous drills that tested various aspects of their athletic ability, such as their strength, speed, agility, stamina and hand-eye coordination. The ones that made the cut athletically were then dropped into live scrimmages against other prospective team members as well as current Team USA roster players.
On Jan. 17, Van Ryn got the incredible news. She earned a spot on Team USA and would be travelling with the team to Mexico City, Mexico, in April for the Pan American Championships qualifying tournament in April.
"I feel so incredibly blessed and excited for the opportunity to represent Team USA," Van Ryn finished. "This is an athletic dream come true, and I believe that through hard work, dedication, and the support of the community, we can establish the USA as a fierce competitor on the international team handball stage. While I know the road to success won't be easy, I am honored to take part in the journey and optimistic about the future for team handball in America."
2013 Team USA Senior Women Handball Team
Van Ryn, Ashley