Lakeridge High School alum Ebiye Udo-Udoma reaching new heights in the world of team handball
In his youth, he never experienced wanderlust.
Airplanes didn't suit Ebiye Jeremy "EJ" Udo-Udoma. The pressure in his ears made flying unbearable.
At 29 years of age, traveling has finally grown on him. Udo-Udoma has visited 21 countries across six continents with the world of sports, specifically team handball, serving as his tour guide.
"As you get older, you start to put things into perspective — the blessing of just being able to meet different people in different corners of the globe," he said.
An alumnus of Lakeridge High School and Oregon State University, Udo-Udoma has been a part of Team USA's handball program for eight years. International travel is one aspect of the job description. It's what the kid, who was once miserable aboard planes, signed up for.
"It's ultimately the dream to be able to travel the world and to compete in something that you love doing," he said. "You're physically and mentally prepared to deal with all the demands of your craft, and ultimately just try to enjoy getting to compete."
And compete he has.
Udo-Udoma is about as decorated as they come in the handball world, specifically when it comes to beach handball — his speciality. A two-time North-American and one-time Pan-American title champion and the reigning continental MVP, he's also won two U.S. club championships, a Mexican club championship and a Chinese club championship. He's a two-time U.S. club MVP, two-time Mexican club MVP and was named the International World Games Association Athlete of the Month in June 2020.
A medal for Team USA at a world championship still eludes him. It's never happened in the country's history. Naturally, he'd like to be in the fold when it does. But through his travels, one more goal has arisen — one that could transcend his playing career.
"I just want to keep growing the sport, keep exposing the sport … I think that's where I am at this stage of my career," he said.
Handball is a Eurocentric sport. And while it's rising in popularity around the U.S., it's routinely overshadowed by other sports.
"When you look at the Olympic podium in the past couple of years, it's been Europe, Europe, Europe, gold, silver, bronze," he said. "You have kids who grow up wanting to be pro handball players, and you don't really see that as much in the U.S."
In some countries, particularly from the Scandinavian region, handball is the go-to winter sport. It overshadows even basketball. Kids begin playing at four, five, six years old, Udo-Udoma said, and develop in a system similar to that of AAU basketball in the U.S.
Unlike his opponents abroad, Udo-Udoma didn't discover handball until he was 15. He stumbled upon it by sheer happenstance.
During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, he was flipping through channels when he came across a handball match right as a player leapt into the air and scored. He was immediately transfixed, despite having not a clue what the sport was. It was played on a hardwood floor like basketball, but had goalkeepers. The offensive movement and throwing motion reminded him of water polo. Finally, the logo flashed across the screen before a commercial break: team handball. He'd played it before, back in fifth grade PE class. He figured his teacher had made it up.
So began the research.
After some time surfing the internet, he came across the Portland Sasquatch Handball Club. Held at Aloha High School, a 25-minute drive from his home, the club primarily consisted of Europeans who had grown up with the sport before later relocating to Portland. A burgeoning high school athlete, Udo-Udoma asked if he could drop in — and for the final two years of high school, they showed him the ropes.
He'd played both basketball and baseball since the age of five or six, and later competed in football, basketball, baseball, wrestling, track and tennis for Lakeridge. Handball combined so many of the skills he'd honed in years past. It was basketball with a baseball-like throwing motion.
"Those dynamic read-and-react skills are transferable across all ball sports," he said.
Both the city of Seattle and Oregon State University had clubs as well. The three groups met quarterly to hold friendly competitions. Udo-Udoma was later drawn to Oregon State, in part, because of its club.
After his sophomore year at Oregon State, he heard there was a new coach for the national team and that open tryouts were to be held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Making Team USA would be a lofty goal, he thought, but he gave it a go all the same.
However unlikely, by 2014, his graduation year (he left the state of Oregon and OSU after his sophomore year and, after tryouts in Colorado Springs, finished school in Alabama as he prepped to play for Team USA), Udo-Udoma was competing in his first international competition — the Pan-American Championships in Uruguay — with USA across his chest.
As he began international competition, the first seeds of his goal to spread the game were planted.
"The people were excited to see us," he said. "I was 21 years old, and even when I didn't play well, there were local Uruguay fans who still wanted autographs and selfies. That really helped me put in perspective the power of sport."
Udo-Udoma considers Team USA the "serendipity squad."
"We all had to somewhat fortuitously discover handball, primarily after playing other sports," he said. "You have to get to know somebody and stumble across the game."
Handball has guided Udo-Udoma across the world. In early May, he returned home to Lake Oswego for a victory lap. After three decades as an attorney, his mother Loretta Mabinton was set to retire, so they sold his childhood home. On to Dallas, Texas.
Bittersweet as it was, Udo-Udoma used his return as a chance to catch up with former neighbors, classmates and teachers. He revisited his old stomping grounds: Westridge Elementary School and Lakeridge High School. While he doesn't return to the area nearly as frequently as he did in his early post-grad years, he said he is forever grateful for the Pacific Northwest.
It was where his handball journey began. As to where he, and the sport, go next? Only time will tell.
His next stop is the PGNiG Summer Superliga, Poland's top beach handball club competition. He'll be playing for AutoInWest SAS Gdansk, but there's undoubtedly plenty more to come.
He's lost track of how many people have approached him both in the U.S. and abroad to tell him it's their first time watching handball. They tell him how exciting the sport is and that they want their kid to play. Unfortunately, Udo-Udoma said, the infrastructure isn't developed enough for him to provide them information on local clubs in their areas.
Perhaps that day isn't far off.
"It's an easy sport for an American to fall in love with," he said.
Now a member of the Board of Directors for USA Team Handball, Udo-Udoma thinks there's light at the end of the tunnel, especially with the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles on the horizon. He believes there's a future, a near-future, in which awareness for the sport grows in the U.S.
"I can definitely envision a future where handball is like basketball or football here," he said. "The key, from my perspective, is getting a professional league here, (providing) a pipeline."
The more he travels, the wider his perspective becomes. He's increasingly optimistic that handball could have a legitimate grassroots future on U.S. soil and that the next generation of American handball stars will discover the game long before they're channel surfing as high schoolers.
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