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Tar Heel Olympians: Team Handball Heels

Team handball is a foreign sport to many Americans, but a couple Tar Heels have actually competed in it at the Olympics.

Olympics - Previews - Day -4 Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

This summer, athletes from all over the world will compete in the Olympic games. (Hopefully. Please chill, COVID.) We already know that two a couple Tar Heels will be there on the US and other women’s soccer teams, and there’s sure to be others to officially make it by the games kick off.

In honor of the games, throughout the whole of the summer leading up to them, we’ll be digging into the history books to profile some Tar Heels of the past who competed at the Olympics.

Every four years when the Olympics come around, there’s one sport in particular that seems to baffle any Americans that come across it: team handball. While things like rhythmic gymnastics and badminton don’t have a massive following in the US, people are plenty aware that they exist. However with handball, if you’re on social media during the Olympics, you’ll undoubtedly come across several people saying “Whoa, what is this?” when they find it on whatever secondary channel airs a handball game. That inevitably leads to discussions about what athletes from American sports would be good at it, and then the Olympics end and it’s forgotten about four four years.

Due to all of that, the US national handball teams aren’t exactly a force on the world stage. The men’s and women’s teams have both qualified for the IHF World Championships at points, but haven’t been particularly successful upon getting there. Despite all of that, they actually have competed in the Olympic games, and in some cases, North Carolina Tar Heels have been involved.

If you ever look at a list of athletes by country, you’ll notice that the host country will always have among the most. That’s because as the host country, they are allowed automatic qualification for teams/athletes in many events, even if medal contention isn’t expected. Such was the case for the US handball teams at the 1996 games in Atlanta.

The men’s handball team had played in five prior Olympic competitions prior to 1996, while the women had played in three. The highest any US team had ever finished was the women finishing fifth in 1984. However, that was out of six teams, and ‘84 was another Olympics hosted in the US, taking place in Los Angeles.

Both the men’s and women’s teams were granted automatic berth to the 1996 Olympics as the host country. It just so happened that both team’s rosters included Tar Heel athletes.

As you might guess considering that there’s no NCAA sponsored handball, the Heels all competed in different sports while at Carolina.

On the men’s side was football players John Keller and Steve Penn. Keller played as a tight end at UNC from 1986-88, finishing with 30 career catches for 320 yards and three touchdowns, while also making an ACC All-Academic team. As for Penn, he was a receiver from 1987-91.

On the women’s side of things was Chryss Watts. A three-sport all-state athlete in high school, Watts lettered in both basketball and track while at UNC. After graduation, she took up team handball and was on the US roster when they appeared at the 1992 Olympics. Four years later, she was the team captain at the ‘96 games.

The men’s tournament consisted of 12 teams divided into two groups of six. The US lost their first four games, but performed admirably, losing to eventual silver medal winning Sweden 23-19 and eventual gold medal winning Croatia 35-27. They were already eliminated from medal contention by the final group stage game, but in that they defeated Kuwait to avoid finishing last in the group. They also then won a ninth place game over Algeria. When you factor in the amount of teams that competed in each tournament, the 1996 team is tied for the best finish in US men’s handball history.

The women’s team were not as successful, finishing last in the eight team women’s tournament. However individually, Watts finished the tournament as the seventh leading goal scorer with 26.

Neither US team has competed at the Olympics since 1996, but both are set to when the games come to Los Angeles in 2028. Who knows, maybe one of your favorite Tar Heel athletes decides to take up team handball between now and then.


“Gone Pro: North Carolina: Tar Heel Stars Who Became Pros” by Tim W. Jackson