If her senior-year plans had come to pass, Jennifer Farrell would be wrapping up her final year of medical school right about now. Instead, the California native is living in Montpellier, France, as a member of US Team Handball Women's National Team. Even though the team failed to qualify for the Pan American Games last spring—and thus for a berth in the 2008 Olympics—Farrell and her teammates are maintaining an intense training schedule so that the U.S. can compete at a higher level on the international handball stage and, she hopes, bring home the gold in 2012.
Handball was not on Farrell's radar when she was an undergraduate. With a dual major in Hindi and biology, she stayed busy with her course work, her extracurricular involvement with the student-run Emergency Medical Services group, and as a standout rugby player, both on the Duke women's team and as an annual participant in the National Elite All-Star camp.
As graduation neared, Farrell considered pursuing an opportunity to spend a year in Scotland shadowing a physician in preparation for applying to medical school. Out of the blue, she got a call from a former rugby coach who knew that the Team Handball Women's National Team was looking for players. Farrell was invited to try out, and by October 2004, she and seventeen other young women from diverse but equally athletic backgrounds were living and training in Cortland, New York.
A fast, physical hybrid of soccer and basketball, handball is played on an indoor court that is slightly larger than a basketball court. Games consist of two thirty-minute halves, with only one timeout per team per half (the only other time the clock stops is in the event of an injury or at the referee's discretion). Players score by throwing the cantaloupe-size ball past a goalkeeper into a net. To move the ball up the court, players can dribble (as in basketball) for an unlimited amount of time, run with the ball for up to three steps before and after dribbles, and hold the ball without moving for three seconds.
Although they are still members of the U.S. women's handball national team, Farrell and her teammates are gaining broader experience by playing with higher-level teams in Europe while the U.S. Olympic Committee restructures the way the men's and women's national teams are governed. Once that happens—most likely in the next year or two, says Farrell—the team will reconvene and begin competing to try to qualify for the 2009 World Championships.
"My new coach is the former captain of the French National Team, and he's also spent the last ten years playing for one of the top teams in the European Champions League," says Farrell. "Not only is he a champion handball player, but he also played my position—circle/pivot—so there is a lot to learn from him."
(A circle/pivot plays a role similar to that of a post player in basketball.)
When she's not working out with the French team, Farrell takes French classes at the University of Montpellier to improve her language skills, climbs and camps in the Pyrenees, and plays host to American teammates who come to town. "I don't feel like my life is on hold," she says. "I feel that for the rest of my life this is something that I will be happy and proud about."
Jennifer Farrell '04
January 31, 2008