Gary 'Hangtime' Hines and USA Handball's 10-year plan: Gold at LA 2028?

"Anything is possible," says U.S. star Hines on Tokyo 2020 qualification, but USA Team Handball is looking long-term.

Imagine a sport that combines the best basketball dunk you've ever seen, with the joy of a soccer goal and the force of a hockey hit - and all at the speed of a baseball strikeout pitch.

That sport already exists and it's called handball.

So why, if it's a combination of sports that the USA is so good at, has Team USA never won an Olympic medal in handball?

In fact it's one of only three sports that the United States has never won an Olympic medal in: Badminton, table tennis, handball.

But now, a year before Tokyo 2020, USA Team Handball (USATH) is on a mission: to awaken the sport's sleeping giant and compete with the best in the world by the next Olympics on U.S. soil: Los Angeles 2028.

First the men's team have a chance to qualify for the Tokyo Games by winning the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru,

The winners of the event in Lima will earn qualification to Tokyo and star player Gary 'Hangtime' Hines will lead the line:

"Anything is possible," he told Olympic Channel.

If you want an idea of just how exciting this sport can be, check out the highlights of the Rio 2016 Olympic final, where France were trying to make history by winning three gold medals in-a-row.

Denmark had other ideas.

The U.S. wants in on this level of the game, and watching this you can understand why:

Tokyo 2020

The United States men's handball team hasn't qualified for an Olympics since getting a free pass as hosts at Atlanta 1996.

Why?

"It's not promoted, for one," Veteran Hines told Olympic Channel, "it's not big in college, it's not an NCAA sport, it's not a high school sport where you have your own high school teams and it's not well marketed."

But all that is about to change.

USATH has a bold vision for the future, one where the USA goes head to head with the best in the world, challenging teams the quality of Denmark - current world and Olympic champions - and traditional powerhouses like France and Germany.

How?

A detailed development plan that has set clear goals and timelines for the sport of handball in the country that has won more Olympic medals than any other nation. Ever.

10-year vision

A ten-year strategic plan shows USATH's bold vision for the future designed "to change the dynamic of USA Team Handball in the United States."

A collegiate system with a 'Final Four' is in the works, modelled on the wildly successful NCAA basketball system, that will increase the number of teams in competitions from 12 in 2018 to 40 by the end of 2020, and to 80 by 2024.

This 'talent pipeline' will nourish the national team and help the USA become competitive on the world stage.

Talks are also underway for a USA national team to play in the French pro handball league, giving them time to improve and play together in one of the best professional leagues on the planet.

The U.S. public is set to get more exposure to the sport too on TV and live streaming - including right here on Olympic Channel.

"Things are starting to move in the right direction for handball talent for the United States" - Gary Hines to Olympic Channel

Goals, goals, goals

The 10-year-plan was published in August 2018, and already goals are being met.

This revitalisation of the sport is showing early and encouraging signs of success: USA men's and women's teams were crowned champions at the first-ever edition of the North American and the Caribbean (NAC) Beach Handball Championship completed in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday July 14, 2019.

In September 2018, both the women’s and men’s national teams also qualified for the 2019 Pan American Games after an eight year absence.

The women finished fourth overall, while the men lost their opening game to Argentina on Wednesday (31st July).

A first place finish at Lima 2019 would mean qualification for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

So, is that realistic?

"Anything is possible, we have a lot of work ahead of us," says 35-year-old Hines, who's watched three Olympics come and go with the USA failing to qualify.

"Making Tokyo would be a dream. That would just be unbelievable, a big goal, and a big check off my list... to play against the best of the best" - Gary 'Hangtime Hines

"It's not long term"

One of the men's team star players, left back Aboubakar Fofana, who was outstanding at the IHF Emerging Nations Championship in Georgia isn't ready to wait ten years for success to come.

"It’s not long-term," said Fofana in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where the USA came 5th overall, "cause through the Pan Ams we’re trying to compete for the Olympics, so it’s not that long term. We’re talking about 2020, we’re talking about 2024, we’re talking about 2028, which is at home."

"It’s always in our minds cause for Americans, the Olympics is the ultimate goal, so that’s where we’re trying to get."

The talk of ten-year plans has inspired the current players to show that the future is now.

USA went through a grueling training and preparation period in Brazil before the Lima Pan Ams with two practices a day and a friendly game every second day.

"We are coming along and gelling pretty well ... we have a lot of positive things going," says Hines.

Winning the tournament in Lima would make a big statement to the world, but losing wouldn't be a disaster either.

A top 3 finish would keep Tokyo hopes alive by giving the squads an opportunity to participate in an Olympic Qualification Tournament before next summer.

With all the energy and ingenuity going into the future of USA handball, there's an awful lot to look forward to over the next ten years in the lead up to LA 2028.

But it feels like USA fans may not have to wait that long for something to celebrate.

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