Jacque Messel was walking back from the mess hall her freshman year at the United States Military Academy when a senior asked Messel if she had played sports in high school.
Messel’s answer was volleyball, basketball and track.
“Tomorrow at 1600 hours, you try out for team handball,” said the senior, captain of Army’s team.
There was only one answer a freshman could give to that.
“You say, `Yes, Ma'am,’ and you show up at 1600,” Messel recalled.
Messel, who grew up in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, had never heard of team handball and had no clue what it was until she followed her superior’s order.
“I found out they took trips, and as a freshman, it’s a pretty big deal to get away from there (West Point), so I thought, `Whatever it is, I’ll play,’’’ Messel said.
Ten years later, her career in the Army over, the 32-year-old Chicago resident still is taking handball trips. She has played in Europe, the Caribbean and now the quadrennial Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Messel is a goalie on the U.S. team that opened competition Saturday with a 50-10 loss to three-time defending champion Brazil.
Messel is one of five Pan Am team players – including former Northwestern soccer star Tabby Lowey Hardison -- from the Chicago Inter Handball Club, which won its third national championship in four years this May. Being named most valuable goalie of the tournament helped Messel win back the national team spot she had lost last fall.
How Messel came to be a goalie was as serendipitous as her introduction to the sport, which can loosely be described as a combination of basketball and soccer.
“It’s a fantastic sport once you see it – just as exciting as basketball, and a lot more physical,” she said.
After four years as a court player for Army, she showed up at a 2003 national team residency program with a shoulder injury and decided it was safer to stand in the goal. Even playing with one arm, she impressed a coach enough that he said, “I think you have more potential as a goalie.”
She has been in the cage ever since – bruises, concussion and all.
“Things kind of clicked for me after I became a goalie,” she said. “I like the pressure of being that last line of defense.”
Team handball shots, which are thrown, hit 50 miles an hour on the way to the goal. Messel’s concussion came on a shot that caromed off the post before hitting her.
Following graduation from West Point, Messel spent time in the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which has supported many U.S. Olympians. She left the Army as a captain and took a job as an employee benefits consultant in the Chicago office of Lockton, a commercial insurance broker.
The company has supported Messel’s sports career by allowing her to work remotely while at national team training camps. She is taking vacation for the Pan Am Games to focus entirely on handball.
All three U.S. goalies saw action, with Messel finishing the game against a Brazil team that turned repeated U.S. turnovers into fast-break goals. She started the next game, a 33-26 loss to the Dominican Republic that knocked Team USA out of the medal round and ended their chances to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 1996.
Team handball long has been an afterthought in the United States. The national federation is operating on a $700,000 annual budget in 2011 and fighting with the U.S. Olympic Committee over funding.
It’s a variation of a chicken-and-egg proposition: the USOC focuses on allocating resources to sports with a chance for Olympic success, and team handball may never have a chance, even with resources.
Messel doesn’t allow herself to get caught up in those issues. She just wants to keep playing a sport made to order for her.Copyright © 2015, RedEye