Melinda Rhoads: Falling Into Handball, Becoming an Olympian, and Coaching the Next Generation
Melinda Rhoads did not know what handball was when she was volunteered to try out for a national team on site at her university. She and her teammates basically started from scratch in their early 20s, competing against life-long handball players on the international stage. They worked extremely hard, and fought their way to an Olympic birth, where they were able to claim fourth place in Los Angeles. Since then, she takes pride in having raised three athletic daughters, shares her Olympic experience with as many people as possible, passes on her wisdom to teens through coaching basketball, and teaches as a paraprofessional at the local high school.
Where are you from, and how did you get into Handball?
I am from Oil City, PA and I was in school at Slippery Rock University. My advisor was hosting a national team tryout for the U.S. Team Handball Federation and asked me to go to the tryouts as a representative of the school. I agreed, and things took off from there.
Did the school have a team?
No. My advisor was an amazing woman and she just thought it would be great to bring this new sport to our school. Slippery Rock is a physical education school and they were trying new things all the time. She offered our school up as a tryout site and the Team Handball Federation accepted. They brought 50 women from all over the country to the tryout. After eight days of what we remember as torture, the Federations selection committee named a national team of 16 players to go to the World Championships in Russia. They called my name — needless to say I was a bit surprised. None of us really knew how to play, we were starting from scratch as 20 year olds. You can imagine the difficulty we had playing against teams that had been playing all their lives. We had a rough start. Looking at the bright side, there was no handball being played in the states, so, we had to travel to where they were playing the game. I had never been out of PA. Next thing I know I’m in the Soviet Union, Spain, Yugoslavia and many other countries filling up my passport! That was in 1975 and that was awesome.
Had you played sports prior?
Yes, I was a tomboy. I played everything. I grew up as Title IX was coming into play, and my high school had just moved from GAA (Girls Athletic Association) to interscholastic sports. I swam, ran track, played basketball, softball, whatever I could. I think playing a lot of sports really helped me when I was transitioning into handball and learning the game. Basketball players make the best handball players. Handball is very popular around the world. Most people here still do not know what handball is. I started playing in 1975 and we face many of the same struggles today. We would be really good at it if we started playing the game at a younger age or even just got more people to play. It’s really kind of funny that my daughters are playing handball. We never thought that would happen. They grew up playing soccer and basketball and were just looking for something different, so started playing handball - both indoor and beach, and they were the type of athletes Team USA was looking for.
What was it like to barely know the sport to playing internationally?
Our first tournament was in Canada. When we walked into the gym, we were like, “Whoa, this is how it’s played? This is cool.” We had just gone through the tryouts at Slippery Rock and we weren’t really playing the way it was meant to be played. Five of us from that first team stuck with it and played through the Olympics in 1984. It was a wonderful journey. There were a lot of ups and downs, the good always out-weighing the bad. We are still a tight knit group. We just came back from the All Olympian and Paralympian reunion and almost all of us were there. Those who weren’t were calling in for pictures and texting, trying to share in the experience. What we did was very special. We grew together as young women, but in the process became a pretty good handball team. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into that. It’s something that’s not easily forgotten over time because we invested so much into each other and the game and what we were doing. Each person that was on that team has a story like mine. People wonder how we heard about this sport and where we came from –somehow it was meant to be that we were thrown on a team together.
Did you have a coach who knew the game?
We always had European influence in our coaches. They are more familiar with the sport. The communication barrier was a challenge. Also, American athletes are different than international athletes. I feel like as American athletes we are pretty low maintenance. All you have to do is tell us what to do and we will do it. There is a level of athleticism that we had that sometimes was overlooked because we didn’t know the game. Many times we were superior athletically, but because of the other countries handball experience that advantage was hard to overcome. Having European coaches is still a bit of an issue. Our women’s national team coach is living in France and our men’s team coach is from Sweden. For us, we had a German coach to start, then Polish, then Spanish. Our Olympic team coach was also from Europe.
What was the journey like to the Olympics?
For the most part, we would come together to train for a week and then go to Europe or wherever to play, come home, months would go by, and then we would repeat the process. We were feeling like we would take two steps forward and three steps back. At some point the federation made a great decision to establish a residency for us. They moved us all to New Jersey in the same house, and we practiced at Rutgers University. We had to support ourselves too, so we all got jobs. That part of the journey would probably make a really good movie. The age range on our team was 15 to 28, all living under the same roof. There were probably 13 to 15 of us in the house. My bedroom was the dining room. We had people sleeping in every nook and cranny in the house. It was really amazing, we even had two dogs! The residency worked out well because that’s when we saw our greatest growth, working out together every morning and practicing every night. Add the struggle of having to work and make money, and figure out how to live together. That was all part of what strengthened our team. When the Olympic Training Center opened in Lake Placid, NY, we had the opportunity to live and train there. That was huge. We didn’t have to work while we were there, we were able to concentrate on our training.
As we got closer to Olympic qualifications and games, we were in residency. We were still playing catch up to the world, but we had a great tournament and got fourth in the 1984 Games. It was exciting to be in Los Angeles and have the best showing for our sport in the history of handball for our country. Especially after everything we went through. It might be nice to end the story with a gold medal but for us it wasn’t really about that. We can tell people that we were one goal away from a bronze, but for us, we felt really good about our performance. We were so far behind when we started, and we made up so much ground and played so well. We were happy and honored to be representing our country in the Olympic Games on our own soil. The venue sold out when we played and everyone was all excited about handball. It was an incredible time for handball here in the USA. The U.S. was able to qualify for the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Games, but we have not been in the Olympic games since Atlanta in ‘96. I would love to see that happen again.
Did you retire after the 1984 Olympics?
I didn’t play internationally after the Olympics, but I coached for a while. One of my teammates, Reita Clanton and I, coached the men’s and women’s training teams for a while. We also had club teams and I played club handball until I was in my 40s. That fueled the competitive fire, even though we weren’t playing at the highest level. As my handball career ended, I fell in love with a wonderful man back home in Pennsylvania and we started a family. This was a whole new beautiful chapter of my life.
How did you meet your husband?
We met on the basketball court. He played basketball at Wake Forest and overseas in Australia and New Zealand. He then coached men’s basketball at Slippery Rock University. I would say it was love at first sight for both of us. We were married for 25 years, I would tell people my life was perfect: I have a great husband, three beautiful and healthy girls, and the key to three gyms! He lost his battle with cancer seven years ago. It’s still hard to believe. I miss him every day. Half of my heart is in heaven. But my girls and I feel like he is with us every day, we are fueled by so many great memories. We bide time until we meet again, and eventually we will.
Did you have a hard time with the transition?
I don’t remember it being hard. I feel like I had accomplished what I set out to accomplish, and handball gave me so much. The lessons that I learned, both good and bad, translated well into real life. I’m 64 now and I’ve gone through ups and downs just like when playing. I feel like because of those experiences, I’ve been able to handle real life situations that much better. There is something inside me that has enabled me to find the good in everything. I am able to just get through the really tough times. I was so busy. I had three children and a husband, and I always worked part time. Then I started coaching basketball. I’ve always been very thankful. I feel like being an elite athlete and having that Olympic experience helped make me who I am today. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of that. I lived it, and I don’t take any of that for granted. We just had the Olympic reunion in Colorado Springs, and it was so inspirational. There were 400 Olympians and Paralympians in the room, and so many amazing stories were shared. I felt blessed to be part of that group.
What were the biggest lessons you learned from your sport that translated forward?
Probably perseverance. It would have been really easy to say, especially after that first tryout, that it was too hard and I had no idea what I was doing. Thanks but no thanks. But somehow I decided I would give it a try. I think that if you can make it through those uncertainties, you come out stronger on the other end. Also hard work – we worked so hard. We were always behind and had to play catch up. I feel like being able to do a thousand things at once also comes in handy. I don’t think I was particularly good at that before handball. You figure out a way to multitask. There is also a sense of responsibility that will never leave me. I credit that to the confidence that you get from playing at that high level, and when you realize that you are standing there with Team USA on your chest and the national anthem playing. I still work out, I still coach, and I’m inspired by the ideals of the Olympics and the discipline and perseverance it takes to get there. I coach junior high girls and boys basketball, so I get to pass these lessons on. I get the kids before they make up their minds about a lot of things, so I can mold their character a little bit.
How long have you been coaching at the junior high?
About 25 years at the seventh or eighth grade level. I coach a lot of younger kids too through camps and clinics for first through sixth grade, which is always fun. I’ve worked in the JC Penny stock room, taught pre-school, taught physical education at a Christian school - all part time gigs, so that I could be available for my own children growing up. The work I enjoy the most is with kids and helping them find their way through this ever-complicated world.
Have you had a hand in handball at the national level after retirement?
I would say maybe the first 20 years I was still involved. I started out coaching, was on the board for a little while, and was a director for Olympic festivals. Even after my kids were born we went to a lot of tournaments with club teams and played. But then when my kids got older and they got into doing stuff, I started to phase out of helping with handball. It wasn’t until Jence started getting antsy while playing basketball in Europe that I finally got back into the sport through her. Now I am a great fan. There is something very special about watching your own walk out on the court wearing the red white and blue. I spent three weeks in Peru this summer at the Pan Am games, which was a blast. The Olympic committee only funds certain sports and handball is not one of those. They have to do a lot of their own fundraising. Jence’s sister Kourtney is playing beach handball and just got back from Qatar playing in the World Beach Games. I wanted to go, but the tournament was only five days, and it was hard to justify the trip and missing school, so I decided not to go. They have qualified for the Beach World Championships next summer in Italy, and both Jence and Kourtney are training to make that team. I will find a way to go to Italy to watch them both.
Does your third daughter also play handball?
We joke that Karly is the most responsible and has a good job. She is a senior accountant for a health firm. She had shoulder surgery a year or so ago. I think she would try to play if she could, but that has sidelined her for now. None of them had played handball at all when they were younger as they grew up playing soccer and basketball. Had I known that they would have an interest in handball and be really good at it, I would have started them playing a long time ago. Basketball was very good to us, we made a lot of good friends and made great memories and all three girls earned basketball scholarships. It wasn’t convenient to play handball, because unfortunately there are not a lot of places to play. It’s been on my mind to start something here, now that I have a little more time. I would love to get some kids playing this great game. Pitt, Penn State, and Ohio State all have club teams, so it would be good for kids to start playing, then they would have a place to play as they got older.
What else do you do for activity?
I stay pretty active. I love to run and ride my bike. I also really enjoy my stand-up paddle board and the four miles of navigable waterway right in front of my house. Then, there is my own interpretation of yoga, I call it Mo-Yo (moms yoga), it is a combination of exercises, agilities and poses… works for me! I still take any opportunity to play something, volleyball seems to be the most popular at this time.
Do you feel like you would have done anything differently?
I would have tried to slow down time. I would have found a cure for cancer. But really, when it comes to what I could control, I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I feel like I’ve been pretty blessed and things have gone well and I’ve been pretty darn lucky.
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