Just over four years ago Kathryn Fudge, a towering 22-year-old from Bury, had never heard of handball. A few weeks from now she will be an integral member of a British Olympic team which, while remaining a distant medal prospect, has the capacity to trouble the best in the world.
“My mum saw an advert in the newspaper – ‘Are you female, over 5ft 10in, and do you play sport to a good level?’ – and asked if she could fill it in for me,” recounts Fudge, speaking after her side performed creditably against Montenegro, one of the world’s top women’s handball nations.
“So I ended up going to a trial in January 2008. After six months I went to Denmark to join the women’s squad. I’d just finished my A-levels. All my mates were going to university and I was going to Århus to play handball.”
This unlikely journey has made Fudge an official member of Britain’s first Olympic women’s handball squad, most of whom had, like Fudge, never played the sport until a few years ago.
As a rough equivalent, imagine if Denmark decided to put together a cricket team in time for a Test series in about 2016. Handball, a furiously swift and physical sport in which seven-player teams sprint relentlessly up and down a 40-metre court and the goal count reaches dozens, is played professionally throughout much of Europe but has almost no tradition in Britain.
When London was awarded the Olympics it was decreed that the host nation needed viable handball teams. The British men’s and women’s handball squads had by then been disbanded for more than 20 years amid a general lack of interest and funding.
Handball became one of the main focuses of Sporting Giants, the search fronted by Sir Steve Redgrave for Britons with the physical attributes to shine in under-resourced Olympic sports. From 4,000 potential handball recruits, 16 men and 10 women were selected, among them Fudge, the bulk of whom have since spent a peripatetic and at times almost hand-to-mouth existence learning their trade overseas, predominantly in Scandinavia.
The men’s and women’s squads have the official target of reaching the last eight of their competitions. While ambitious for both, the women probably have the better chance, in part thanks to a slightly kinder draw. Against Montenegro, in front of 600 fans at south London’s Crystal Palace sports centre, the British women ended the first half two points down, though this stretched to an eventual 22-37 defeat.
Such a relatively close-run game would have been unthinkable a few years ago, said John Brewer, chairman of the British Handball Association. “The handball story shows that it’s not just about medals. I’m not saying we won’t win a medal but we’ve got to be realistic. But we can put handball on the map.”
This mission to popularise the sport helped players through four years of sacrifice with little chance of glory, said Louise Jukes, 28, who was working as a physiotherapist when she saw the Sporting Giants appeal. “I loved handball from the moment I played it, and I just hope we can inspire people to take it up.”
The sport is very school-friendly – simple to learn, indoors, with little equipment beyond a ball and some goals. At a professional level it is, Jukes explains, upper arms covered in finger-sized bruises, rougher even than the hockey she played at England youth level: “Even though they’ve got sticks in hockey, the fists are worse.”
The Olympic preparations are not entirely self-sacrificial. After the Games several GB women will play professionally, with Fudge signing for a Swiss team.