• Aaron Hamm

Am I There Yet?


(UNCUT)

Growing up as the youngest of three in Conover, NC, I always looked up to my brother and sister’s accomplishments. We are all hypercompetitive, and without boosting their egos too much, I’ll just say, y'all did alright for yourselves. It was with Kendall and Rachael in the back of my mind that I began to start navigating this world-- and to be clear, it was much more navigating than arriving in those days.


Believe me, when I tell you young Aaron was a menace, and if you are unlucky enough to have crossed paths with me back then, I sincerely apologize. Since I was nine months old, I have been struggling with a sleep disorder, and to spare you all the details, it essentially means that sometimes even if I look like I am asleep, I am not really getting restorative sleep. If I am "asleep" for 8 hours, I'm probably getting closer to 4-6 hours of what you would consider sleep. As a kid, I'm not sure that I understood the ramifications of this; all I knew was that I was tired all the time and loved getting in fights. I was working through something without even realizing it and often taking out my frustrations on those around me. In those days, sports were my escape. My parents worked late, so at 3 PM, I would go into an afterschool program for a couple of hours until one of my parents could come to pick me up. When it was nice out, I'd play some football or kickball, and when it wasn't so nice, I'd put up shots on the basketball hoop.

Sports were something I could always turn to - rain or shine.

My grades during this time were bang average, which I'm sure also made my parents nervous after they raised two “straight A” students in Kendall and Rachael. I was in and out of the principal’s office all the way through the 8th grade, and the only tool my parents had to discipline me was not allowing me to play ball with my friends. They tried punishments like yardwork or random chores around the house, but to be honest, the only thing I really gave a damn about was dressing out with my buddies to play basketball. To me, the only value of school was that it allowed me to play, so I did just enough to keep myself academically eligible in the eyes of Maggie Hamm and not a single thing more.


Looking back, I think a lot of this rage and confusion stemmed from not having a grasp on my sleep and how I had to change my life to work around it. I had figured out how to play sports at a high level with it, but that’s about it. I doubt my older brother remembers this, but in my 9th grade year, after again doing something stupid, he looked at me and just said, "what are you doing?" Here I was, a fully capable teen with immense talents, both athletically and academically, pissing his life away because he was so angry that he had somehow drawn the short straw on life. God gives everyone something to struggle with. Sleep and the effects of not having enough just so happened to be mine.

Now, it is up to me to ensure that I learn from this battle and give empathy to those fighting their own unseen battles.
(Aaron Hamm)

As I was saying, I kicked it up in high school. I realized that, more than likely, I wouldn’t be playing in the NFL or the NBA and that I would have to make a living with more than my physical attributes. But in the end, I did make it to the big leagues. Now, if you have made it this far, you probably have several questions. First, who is Aaron Hamm? No, you aren't supposed to know my name, much in the same way that you might not know what handball is. Even if you know me well, you likely don’t know my journey. This will be important later, but it all is important.

The last four years have given me the privilege of traveling the globe in a shirt with “USA” on the front and “HAMM” on the back. It's given me some of the greatest friends I could ever hope for. But most importantly, it taught me who Aaron Hamm is-- something that I am only now realizing at the ripe age of 22.

My handball journey began at Fallfest in August of 2017 when some tall guy from Connecticut named Ethan Peikes invited me to try out a practice. I knew what handball was from the Olympics, and it looked exhilarating. Handball is an interesting sport; my favorite metaphor is that it is simply water polo on land, but some people prefer lacrosse without the sticks or soccer with your hands (if you are still a little confused, click here). I knew club sports were pretty lowkey and thought since I had tried all the typical sports growing up, I might as well start knocking off the obscure ones.


On day one of practice, I was absolutely lost. They told me that I could dribble the ball, but strictly straight up and down that I could take three steps instead of the two I was used to from basketball. Pretty soon, I realized that the skillset I had been perfecting the last 18 years was perfect for handball - as it’s a combination of everything under the sun. I started looking more into the sport and was shocked to learn that all the European countries have major professional leagues; outside of soccer, handball is probably the next biggest sport in most areas. How could such a fast-paced, high-flying sport be relatively unknown to much of America?


By late fall, I knew that I possessed some impressive potential in the sport. Our coach at the time, Myles Bacon, got me a look from the National Team, and by the end of my freshman year, I was playing in a tournament in Chicago with the U21 National Team. Imagine that?

(Aaron Hamm)

Needless to say, I was nervous as can be by the time I got off the plane in Chicago. Playing for the national team was always something I had dreamed about, although to be fair, in those dreams, I was throwing lobs to Kobe or Bron. To make matters worse, I showed up to the first practice only to find out we would be playing with glue on the ball. Looking back now, I realize how much the game opens up when you play with glue: the game speed is quicker, and you can throw probably 10-15 mph harder. Getting used to glue is a whole different story, though. My first 20-30 throws went straight to the feet of my teammates. My hands are pretty small, so when I play without glue, I am used to gripping the piss out of the ball, but with glue, you just kind of let the ball rest on your hand and flick it off. Glue on the ball wouldn’t have been such a shock had it just been on the ball, but they put it everywhere: on hands, the ball, shirts, and people would even put a “glue reservoir” on their shoes. Let me tell you, this stuff is sticky! By the end of the first practice, the glue had ripped my skin completely off three of the five fingers on my right hand.


During those first couple of practices, my only goal was to keep my interactions with the ball at a minimum. I was so embarrassed and felt way in over my head. I looked around, and much of the team was made up of dual citizens from mainland Europe. Having played the sport their whole lives, they looked so relaxed and in control.

Here I was, nine months into the biggest adventure of my life, and I'm out there looking like I've never played a ball sport in my life, much less handball.

I slowly became more comfortable with glue, although it would take another year until I began to enjoy playing with the sticky stuff. The tournament itself was pretty straightforward. It was a North America and Caribbean tournament for the International Handball Federation Trophy, the first of three preliminary tournaments before the final, my first game time with the national team. We walked through the majority of the games, and I mainly played garbage time. In fairness, I was completely content with this; I knew I was not even close to the level of my teammates and playing on that stage, which was a great entrance into the sport. I even scored eight goals one game and tossed in some of my no-look dimes. Despite this, I wasn't certain, or even confident, that I would get a callback.


That summer, in contrast to later summers, was relatively handball-free. I took organic chemistry at UNC in the first session and worked at my mentor's dentist’s office in the latter half. Life was good; I was under little stress and was eager to get back on the court in the fall. When practices started back up, I was shocked at how much better those ten days in May had made me. The game began to slow down, and I could pretty much coast to score on most of the college teams we played. In one game, I was absolutely COOKIN - we were playing a team from Georgia, and they had some older German guys who had been playing for 20+ years. They were clearly pissed they were getting diced up by some 19-year-old American who didn’t even know how to play. At one point, I scored three straight times down the court and drew a 2-minute penalty on another. I guess this really pushed them over the edge, and the next time down, I made a move on one only to be met with a club right to my head by his teammate.

(Aaron Hamm)

I was out for about two weeks with the concussion, and right when I got back into practice, I was notified that I had been selected again for the U21 National Team. I was overjoyed and quite shocked given how I performed last time out. I quickly got back into shape, and by the time of the camp, I was firing on all cylinders. This time we were playing better competition, and in turn, I was the only player on our 14-man roster that didn’t see the court. I was hurt beyond belief. I had been grinding so hard and felt like I was ready to start making contributions. Despite winning this tournament as well, I was even less certain of making the following squad. Why would they keep bringing deadweight as the competition only stiffened? Over Christmas break, I was dejected. I had also tweaked my knee there and was forced to take a step back from training. I think that part of me realized that I was fighting an uphill battle.

Playing two distinctly different styles of play: one with UNC in which we did not use glue and one with the national team that was already several steps up athletically and physically. How would I get better at that style if my only exposure was in the 6-8 practices before each tournament?

After taking December and most of January off due to my knee injury, I was left with about a week and a half of practice and training before another tournament with UNC. This time, I landed funny on my right leg and completely tore my peroneus longus. I was gutted and heartbroken. The pain was immense, and I was navigating campus on crutches for several weeks before I was able to start walking normally again. Originally, we had been told that the next stage of the international competition would take place over spring break, roughly three weeks after my leg injury. I went from not thinking I would make the team to knowing that I wouldn’t be able to go in the off chance that I did.


They moved the tournament to mid-April in a stroke of luck, giving me over two months to get fit again. I knew that it would be a close call and that there was a good chance I wouldn’t even make the team in the end anyway, but I started rehabbing it and really pushing it. I was obsessive over my rehab routine and somehow could attend my first practice on April 1, less than two months since the injury. This is pretty wild in hindsight, and much of it was made possible by finding out I was again selected for the team three weeks before we were scheduled to go. Additionally, this tournament was in Kosovo, a tiny country right below Serbia. I had never been to Europe in my life, and now I was getting a free trip across the pond, assuming I could get my leg feeling right! I think I completed only two full practices before we were scheduled to leave on the 5th of April. The night before, I went running on Hooker for around 20 minutes.

I could feel my body telling me it wasn’t ready.

On the verge of tears, I called my coach telling him this, and he graciously just said to come and work with the trainers in the training camp, and if it still wasn’t ready by the first game, I would just have to sit. By the end of the camp, I knew I was so close and had been practicing well. I got my shot towards the end of our first game; my first time down the court, I caught the ball and, without even thinking, sent a guy to the moon with a feint, scoring with ease. I honestly can't even describe that feeling. I had scored some sick goals before, but none with that much emotion and tireless work behind them.

(Aaron Hamm)

In the tournament’s final game, a 3rd place game against Paraguay, I got my shot. We had already qualified for the World Championships that summer, and this was the last game to show the staff what we could do and why we deserved to make that team. Having not received much playing time before, I got the start. Damn, was I nervous before that game. I came out and scored two quick goals, had several steals, and came up with a nice assist in the first meaningful game I had played center back, as I played left back at that point for Carolina. To put it into perspective, center back is the handball equivalent to a point guard. A center back makes the team run and is the playmaker that dictates the offense and sets teammates up. The center back has to read the game and understand where everyone is at all times. I made up for my lack of handball experience with my court awareness. I have always felt like if I was on a fastbreak, be it basketball, soccer, or handball, you could put a blindfold on me, and I could tell you after a couple of seconds where everyone would be. It’s just a feel for the game and not really just for handball. It’s a feel that has come from just knowing what the tendencies of an athlete are.

It comes from knowing what sort of closing time I can expect from another player—just years and years of non-handball experience helping me in handball.

Shortly after getting back, it was time for the College National Championships again, this time in Chapel Hill. We had a solid squad and, when fit and firing, one of the best in the country. I was pretty locked in the whole tournament and, fresh off some more European handball exposure, was having a blast. We beat a strong Air Force team in the semifinals and felt great about our chances of taking down West Point in the final. After the semifinal win, I was absolutely spent. I sat down to untie my shoes and realized that I was shaking uncontrollably and very clammy. I still hadn't entirely recovered from the trip to Kosovo, and having just played five games in 2 days; I just assumed that I was simply fatigued. I would have never considered the possibility of having mono, and looking back, playing a full-contact sport with it is pretty scary.


The following day we lost pretty handily to West Point in the final. They were a great team and far better conditioned than us. Our squad was depleted with injuries and emotionally spent from the semifinal game. I reinjured my peroneus longus right after halftime and was forced to sit the rest of the game, but we put up a great fight, and I was pleased with the progress we had made since finishing 5th the year before. Additionally, we were bringing the majority of our team back the following year, so I knew we were far from done.


If you have made it this far in the story, you probably wonder why I just gave you a synopsis of my life. Up until this point, handball was just something I did for fun. I loved my teammates, I loved competing, and I loved the experiences it was giving me. It felt like I was racking up injury after injury, but I was still getting to do the things I wanted to, and I felt like I was working through the pain and becoming mentally stronger in it. Instead, it was this that was slowly breaking me down. Humans are simple beings.

We see and analyze what is in front of us, often without considering what is going on underneath.

Looking at myself from the outside, anyone would see a muscular, active college student, blessed with athleticism and intellect and getting to live out his childhood dream of playing for Team USA. Underneath this, though, I was slowly breaking down. Hopefully, the rest of the story will show you why I am making the hardest right decision of my whole life: not to play professional handball.

(UNCUT)

Right after school ended, I picked my training regime up. I was scheduled to take Calc 2 that summer but knew that if selected to the World Championship roster, I would not be able to continue with my coursework. I attended the first couple of classes and was still working out for maybe 2-3 hours a day. I hadn't had calculus since high school, so I was legitimately lost. All the while, I was still super fatigued and figured I would go in and get some blood work. Well, of course, mono was the diagnosis. I wasn’t super versed on it but knew enough to know the risks of playing a contact sport with an enlarged spleen. Until then, I don’t really think how deep in a hole I had dug myself. I wasn't supposed to find out about making the roster for another week or two and was genuinely overwhelmed. How was I supposed to do 6 hours of calculus a day and 3 hours of training, all the while being too fatigued to get out of bed? My anxiety that day was crippling and resulted in having my first true panic attack. I had always been confused by the idea of a panic attack. Like just breath and relax, it's not that deep.

But in reality, it’s not that deep until it is, and once it is, it's too late.

For two hours, I was sobbing uncontrollably, and I could have sworn my brain thought it was running sprints in the Olympics. My entire body felt numb and limp. I was no longer in control. But more troubling was the fact that I wouldn’t truly be back in control for another year.


Apparently, the final game in Kosovo had proved my worth and potential and I was selected with the last available spot for the World Championships in Spain. I was alerted at the start of June and would have a month to get into the best shape of my life before leaving for our training camp in Portugal. Still struggling with mono, I knew that I would need to drop the calculus course if I wanted to be at my best in Spain. I don’t know what the trigger was, but I flipped a switch and went into overdrive. I started training for four hours in the morning and then two more hours in the evening. It took a week or two, but I began to get over mono and felt genuinely amazing. My body was ready. Looking above me on the depth chart, I knew that playing time would be hard to come by. But I also knew that this was likely my last experience with the national team at any level. There were simply too many quality guys above me, and given my meager playing time up until then, I had serious doubts about progressing to the senior team.


We arrived in Portugal and traveled to their beautiful mountainous countryside to begin our work. Our team was so focused on our goal of representing the country well in our first World Championship appearance in 20 years. We also knew that the road would be hard: our group boasted the previous champion and host country, Spain, the European champions, Slovenia, a big and fundamental side in Serbia, and two up-and-coming nations, Japan and Tunisia. Without being too humble, I was good in our training camp. My body felt great, I finally got a grasp on glue, and the European style and my athleticism meant that I was deployable in multiple positions. In a couple of exhibition games against Argentina and Bahrain, I really showed my potential by chipping in some goals and stout defense. I was rewarded for this with a start at center back in the opening game of the World Championships against who else but Spain. Imagine that. Less than two years before, I had never heard of handball much less played it.

Now I was playing in front of thousands of fans and against the present and future stars of the sport in the opening game of the World Championships.

We lost pretty handily to Spain and Slovenia but hung with Serbia and Tunisia for much of the game before their quality shone in the closing stages. The final group game against Japan was a personal point of pride. Japan and the United States should be in fairly similar stages of development. Japan received an automatic berth for Tokyo 2020 as the host nation and the International Handball Federation has been working to build their program for the last decade in preparation for that. Similarly, the IHF had just begun working to bolster USA Team Handball in preparation for LA 2028. My generation of players will be those guys that take the court in 7 years at the peak of their careers. So, this game against Japan was a great benchmark for us. We were the heavy underdog as they had taken every team in our group down to the wire and were equipped with some elite athletes.


I had missed the previous game due to a rotator cuff injury and rejoined the starting lineup for this final group game. I came out on fire, scoring the first few goals of the game and played some great defense to back it up. We were flying throughout a first-half capped by a great steal and outlet pass that I made while getting shoved out of bounds to take a significant lead into the break. We weren't able to hold on in the second half, but we showed so much fight and determination. I can't put into words the feeling after that game; I was physically and emotionally spent and knew my parents watching back home were immensely proud of me.

(Aaron Hamm)

The tournament was capped with a win against Australia, the first-ever for USATH at a World Championship. That tournament was foundational in the next direction I would take. Before going, I assumed my handball career was rapidly coming to a close and left, having gone toe-to-toe with the best players in the world, knowing that handball would give me whatever I gave it.


After getting back home, I took several weeks just to relax. My hands were bloody from the glue ripping the skin off, and my shoulder and foot were super sore. The foot never really cleared up, so once school started back, I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with a minor foot sprain. I was relieved that it wasn't anything more serious, and receiving the “okay,” I began training again. This time though, it was much, much different. I left that tournament knowing that to continue my handball career, I needed to become a better handball player and an immensely better athlete to cover up my obvious handball deficiencies. I decided to go for it.

I was gifted with great athleticism and feel for the game; I didn’t want to look back and regret not going all in.

Once I started picking up my training regime, I really noticed it beginning to take a toll on my body. I was working out two, sometimes three times a day, and I had really no direction outside of handball practices. Since handball is a club sport, I also didn’t have access to many of the things that the varsity athletes at UNC require, like nutrition and constant access to athletic training or even something small like a workout regime. As great as it felt to see my and my teammates’ hard work begin to pay off, my body was slowly cracking, and I was only beginning to feel the effects of years of playing on the edge.


After this tournament, I received my first callup to the Men's National Team. In 6 months, I had gone from being one of the last guys to make the U21 team to making the senior team. I could not go due to it being in Ireland in the middle of midterm season, but it was a great feeling to be in the conversation before my 21st birthday had even come around. This knowledge furthered my drive to work, train, and play that much harder to squeeze every last drop out of this sport.


My foot continued to worsen, with the pain now shooting up into my left shin. I went back again, and this time they took an X-ray only to diagnose me with a break, which had no doubt gotten worse in the four months since Worlds. I set up an appointment with a surgeon over Thanksgiving break with the idea of using Christmas break to recover and rest before hitting the ground running again at the start of the year. The surgery itself went well. The bone was in two pieces, so they were forced to take it out entirely and sew the tendon up around it. I was understandably nervous as this was my first really significant surgery but was impressed by the surgeon’s work. Despite the size of the incision, I was able to walk, albeit awkwardly and in a boot, within three weeks and was able to ride a bike by the end of the break. I was invited to another training camp over New Years’ in Germany but was forced to sit that out as well.


At the start of January, I received “all clear” to begin training again from the surgeon. It was still painful, but all healed up, so I slowly began cranking my regimen back up, and by the end of January, I was fully practicing again in preparation for a tournament in a few weeks. Come tournament time, I felt good - not 100% by any means but certainly good enough to play. Again, we eased through the tournament and found ourselves in the final, this time against West Point, who had just beaten the tournament favorites.

In the end, we beat West Point, bringing the trophy home for the first time in a decade.

I’m sure you know how this story ends. Two weeks later, we flew out to a tournament in Colorado Springs, right before the University would let us go home for spring break - which quickly turned into the rest of the semester. Within days of the University sending us online, the National Championship was called off. As I am sure many reading this can attest to, it was heartbreaking to have the season called, whatever the sport. You put your heart and soul into something, and it's right there only to be taken away. It felt like all that work we did, all the extra time we put in was for nothing. I know this simply isn't true - if anything, the early morning workouts and film sessions were even more precious once we didn’t even have the option to do them, but it just felt like we had so much left to give.

(UNCUT)

In hindsight, quarantine was the best thing that could have happened to me at that point. I struggled with my schoolwork and rehabbing what were increasingly becoming reoccurring injuries, and my mental space was far from great. Getting home, away from the chaos and stress that college can be, allowed me to think more introspectively about what I valued both in life and handball. Additionally, with no handball on the horizon, I could slow my training down and allow my body to begin healing. Despite this, I was still in daily pain. Nearly the only thing that could help me and have helped me was taking anti-inflammatories. Pretty wild to think about this because at that moment, it wasn't on my mind at all, but I required diclofenac - which is essentially prescription ibuprofen - just to get out of the bed and do a workout. And this wasn’t just a last year thing; pretty much since the fall of sophomore year, I had been taking it semi consistently. Anytime I would have gotten a knock from handball, I would hop back on the diclofenac. It just became the norm. Being the pharmacist that he is, my dad would always lecture me about not taking it too much as he understood the negative effects that could arise from prolonged use of NSAIDs. Still, it seemed like the only option if I wanted to continue to play at the highest level. Words like "addiction" often seem super scary and far off when you talk about them, but not all addiction takes the shape of going to rehab.

I was addicted to handball, addicted to performing at that stage, and in turn, would do anything it took to make sure I was playing.