Immediate Release: April 20, 2011
After productive years on the hardwood for the Bearcats, the married couple is forging new success in the sport of handball, which despite its relative obscurity in the United States, is a thriving sport in Europe and the rest of the world.
Their journey to the professional ranks in Germany and representing the United States in international competition is only half of the story. The trials and tribulations of the young couple - finding full-time work, making friends and adjusting to another culture and language - is a most fascinating journey, and the Fithians have shared their ups and downs on a blog that Jordan maintains here.
Bearcat fans will recall the intensity that both players displayed on the basketball court. Jordan, a former Mr. Basketball and Kansas Player of the Year in high school, was a bruising 6-foot-6, 245-pound interior player whose signature game was a 10-rebound performance against Michigan in 2004. Jen was a gifted athlete whose tenacity resulted in America East all-defensive honors in 2006. One week after Jen's collegiate career ended in the America East tournament, she went to Cortland for a four-day tryout with the United States Team Handball squad.
"They were looking for Division I athlete who they thought they could mold into handball players to join their residency program in Cortland," Jen recalls. "I was about to sign with an Irish basketball team that Monday but by Sunday night, I was hooked and decided to wear the Red, White and Blue."
Jen continued her training with the team in Boston and after Jordan finished his collegiate career at Emporia State (after transferring from Binghamton in 2006), he joined her there. They both worked out with the Boston Team Handball club once a week and after a year, the pair headed to Germany, where many U.S. National Team players go to train year-round as professionals.
After playing professionally for seven months in Germany, the Fithians returned to the states to make money and get married. They returned to Germany last year, determined to make the most of their opportunity and enjoy the unique experience of being professional athletes and living abroad.
"We have been through so much to be able to come here, stay here and survive here," Jen says. "But at the end of the day it's amazing to have a title such as 'professional athlete.' We have gone from scrubbing toilets to getting up at 4 a.m. just to do an odd job to help pay the bills so we can stay in Germany. It hasn't always been easy but it has always been our choice."
Detailing their path into the sport might be easier than explaining the sport itself. For those in the United States who have never heard of team handball ... it's a cross between basketball, indoor soccer, hockey and lacrosse with a splash of dodgeball thrown in.
"I think it's best described as water polo on land," Jen says. "But many people don't follow water polo very closely either so that doesn't always help."
According to the U.S.A. Team Handball website (usateamhandball.org), "Handball, widely known as Team Handball in the U.S., is played in 159 nations by 39 million people. Two teams, composed of six players and one goalie each, face off on a court approximately 66 by 131 feet. Players dribble, pass and shoot a ball into a goal. Men's and women's handballs are about 22-23 inches and 21-22 inches in circumference, respectively; easily gripped in one hand, it is built comparably to a soccer ball. Although about 40 feet longer than a basketball court, a handball court is similar in appearance: half circles on both ends of the court mark the "goal area," a zone that extends about 20 feet in front of the 6'7" tall and 10' wide goal. The 12 court players are not allowed to literally step foot in this area, which results in NBA-style leaps over the line to shoot while in the air. Successful scoring attempts result in a single point. Defensive play is fierce, however, and allows aggressive person-to-person full body contact to prevent the offense from shooting. Final scores in this action-packed game are often in the 30s. A regulation game is played in two 30-minute halves with one team timeout per half. The clock stops only for team timeouts, injuries and at the referee's discretion."
Jordan quickly became a fan of the sport, which combines athletic movements with physical contact.
"I was drawn to the physicality, the constant action and the speed of the game," he says. "Division I basketball is physical but only to a limit, whereas handball is a few levels above basketball and being very physical is encouraged."
It should be noted that Jordan and Jen never shied away from contact on the basketball floor and the couple was unanimous about what they like the most about handball - you can't foul out of the game.
Jen had a head start in her handball career and quickly made the most of it, earning the honor of being named captain of the national team. In December, Jen and her U.S. teammates qualified for the Pan Am Games next October in Guadalajara, Mexico. If they win the Pan Am Games, the team would qualify for the 2012 Olympics, something the United States hasn't done since 1996. The U.S. squad defeated Canada in a two-game series to qualify for the Pan Am Games, with the home game being played at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. The team will likely train in Cuba or Europe as well as participate in a long training camp in the United States leading up to the October competition. Playing for her country is special to Jen.
"To put on the USA jersey is incredible," she says. "There's nothing like representing your country."
She is a defender (left or right back) and uses some of her skills honed on the basketball court, though she says she is trying to break several basketball habits that don't serve her well on the handball court.
"My defense is very strong but my offense still needs a lot of work," she says. "At first, basketball is a great background to have. The defense is a zone concept for the most part and the offensive movement is very similar except when it comes to shooting. But I think Jordan and I are both at the level now that great habits in basketball are becoming big road blocks in handball. For example, in basketball defense, you are taught to meet the player without contact. In handball you are taught to meet the player with full contact. You have extra steps in handball so a player can easily get a shot off if you just slide with them."
American players are typically lacking in experience compared to their European opponents (the top three women's teams at the world championship in December were Norway, Sweden and Romania). Most of the U.S. team is composed of athletes from other sports who are learning handball "on the fly."
"It's a challenge," Jen admits. "But our team is full of athletes so what we lack in technical ability, we make up with our passion and our hard work. German coaches have said how much they love having Americans on their team because they know they will get 100 percent out of that athlete no matter what."
Year-round training is what drove Jen to Germany, where the German (and Scandinavian) leagues are considered the best in the world. She plays for Mainz, a club team in Germany's second division, where she is a defensive stalwart who is improving her offensive skill set every day. In addition to her handball training and competition, Jen works at an International Montessori School, where she teaches children ages three to six.
Jordan plays for TV Gelnhausen in Germany's third division and has his sights set on helping the men's national team qualify for the Pan Am Games. The United States lost to Canada in a two-game series for an automatic berth, so now the team is relegated to a second chance tournament. Uruguay, Guatemala, the United States and one other team will square off for the last spot in the Pan Am Games.
"My short term goals are to get better every day and win that second chance tournament to qualify for the Pan Am Games," he says.
Jordan has had to work extremely hard to make up for his lack of experience, which is more pronounced in the men's game, where non-U.S. players have been playing handball since they were young boys.
"Most of the players in Germany and in other countries have played handball their entire lives and have the foundations and techniques engraved in their brains, like we do for basketball," he says. "Having only picked up the sport three years ago, I am so far behind that, and even though I make up what I can in size, athleticism and heart, you can't overcome experience so easily."
Jordan relies on his basketball background to help him in the ongoing transition to handball and his size and determination are his strengths as he patrols the middle position on defense, usually reserved for the most vocal defensive player.
"I can cover a lot of ground setting screens and setting up my teammates on offense and I have pretty good hands, which is important in a circle because you are often catching passes coming from all directions with all kinds of spin and speed on the ball," he says.
Jordan is being patient with the learning curve.
"My biggest improvement needs to come in general knowledge of how the game is played and technique. That only comes with time. For example, after playing basketball for 18 years, Jen and I both know when to cut, when to screen, where to cut to, when to help on defense, where to be, position-wise and the general movements, techniques and foundations of the game, both offensively and defensively. However it takes time and many hours of practice and playing to know and become comfortable with these things."
Jordan's team regularly plays in front of packed gyms with fans beating drums and cheering for the duration of the 60-minute game. The atmosphere is exciting and the rivalries are intense.
"The German leagues are the strongest in the world, hands down," he says. "With a few exceptions, the best players in the world play in Germany, which makes it exciting and special to be a part of it. There have been very few Americans who have played even in the third division in Germany so it's an honor to represent our country over here."
Recently, Jordan, like Jen, landed a job as a school teacher at a pre-kindergarten. On his blog, he shared the satisfaction and amazement of interacting with the young boys and girls.
"Watching these kids learn (its incredible, we have numerous tri-lingual 4-year olds!!!) is something to behold," Jordan wrote. "They are like big sponges; they pick up everything. It is fun to watch kids from such vastly different backgrounds learn and play together. My class alone has kids from Korea, South Africa, America, Mexico, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany."
As they strive for success in the professional handball ranks, the Fithians are living like many young couples, mixing long work hours with a desire for a social life, managing financial hardship, battling homesickness, but enjoying and appreciating every day. They travel several hours on trains each day to get from their apartment in Friedberg (near Frankfurt) to their club teams to practice and compete.
They have explored their adopted hometown and have enjoyed sightseeing and the thrills of discovering good coffee shops, video stores and an all-you-can-eat Sushi and Japanese food buffet.
But the Fithians have also had to overcome challenges such as obtaining work and resident permits (very difficult for non-EU citizens), finding jobs, and learning a new language. They have been struggling to get Internet service connected at their home, prompting Jordan to liken the scenario to Social Security on his blog. "I continue to pay for it but will most likely never get anything in return," he wrote.
Perhaps no struggle emitted more frustration and after-the-fact humor than the pair's quest to find a doctor after they both were coughing continually in February. A Google search resulted in two doctors close by, but when they entered the first office, the doctor was an OBGYN. The second doctor turned out to be a dentist. Two doctors later and after nearly two hours in the waiting room, the fourth doctor prescribed identical medication for Jen's bronchitis and Jordan's sinus infection. Thankfully, both recovered quickly, though Jordan may have wished his recovery took longer. After a local newspaper discovered his blog and published his tripo to the OBGYN, Jordan's teammates enjoyed a good laugh at his expense. But being a lifelong team-sport athlete, Jordan is used to the ribbing.
The two are embracing all that comes their way on and off the handball court and doing it together with a sharp wit and strong passion.
"The experience, not only handball but in life that we have gained and continue to see grow is unbelievable," Jordan says.
What's on the horizon for the Fithians?
"We are hoping in the near future that the competition will be high enough that we can continue training in the states," Jen says. "We both plan on playing for a while but we eventually want to follow our career paths in the states and start a family. When that ends I hope to stay involved in the sport, either coaching or managing for the U.S. Federation.
For fun, I asked Jordan and Jen to list the former BU teammates they thought would make the best handball players. Here are their responses:
"That would be a damn good squad."
"This is a really tough question!"
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