This summer, athletes from all over the world will compete in the Olympics. (Hopefully. Please calm down, COVID.) We already know two a few Tar Heels will be featured in the US and other women’s soccer teams, and there are sure to be others who will officially make it by the Games.

In honor of the Games, we will be browsing the history books ahead of them all summer to portray some tar heels of the past who participated in the Olympics.

Every four years, when the Olympics take place, there is a sport that seems to baffle every American: team handball. While things like rhythmic gymnastics and badminton don’t have a huge following in the US, people are well aware of their existence. However, if you are on social media at handball during the Olympics, you will no doubt run into several people saying, “Whoa what is this?” if they find it on any secondary channel that broadcasts a handball game. That inevitably leads to discussions about what American athletes are good at, and then the Olympics ends and they are forgotten for four or four years.

Because of this, the US national handball teams are not exactly a force on the world stage. Both the men’s and women’s teams qualified for the IHF World Championship selectively, but were not particularly successful there. Despite all of this, they actually competed in the Olympics, and in some cases North Carolina tar heels were involved.

If you ever look at a list of athletes by country, you will find that the host country is always among the most. Because as the host country, you can automatically qualify for teams / athletes at many events, even if medal fights are not to be expected. This was the case with the US handball teams at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

The men’s handball team had competed in five Olympic competitions before 1996, and the women in three. The highest rank a US team had ever ranked was fifth in the women’s race in 1984. However, this was out of six teams, and ’84 was another US Olympics held in Los Angeles.

Both the men’s and women’s teams were automatically approved to host the 1996 Olympic Games. It just so happened that both teams had tar heel athletes on their roster.

As you can imagine, considering there is no NCAA sponsored handball, the Carolina heels all competed in different sports.

Football players John Keller and Steve Penn stood on the men’s side. Keller played as a tight end at UNC from 1986 to 1988, finishing with 30 career catches for 320 yards and three touchdowns while also forming an ACC All-Academic team. Penn was a recipient from 1987 to 91.

Chryss Watts was on the women’s side. Watts, an all-state athlete with three sports in high school, was labeled in both basketball and track and field during his time at UNC. After graduation, she joined the handball team and was on the US squad when they performed at the 1992 Olympics. Four years later, she was the team captain in the 96 games.

The men’s tournament consisted of 12 teams, which were divided into two groups of six. The USA lost their first four games but showed an admirable performance, losing to eventual silver medalist Sweden 23:19 and eventual gold medalist Croatia 35:27. They were eliminated from the medal battle in the last game of the group stage, but to the extent that they Defeated Kuwait to avoid bottom of the group. They then also won a game for ninth place against Algeria. When you factor in the number of teams that participated in each tournament, the 1996 team has the best result in US men’s handball history.

The women’s team was not that successful and was last in the women’s eight-team tournament. Either way, Watts finished the tournament as the seventh top scorer at 26.

Neither US team has competed in the Olympics since 1996, but both are expected to come to Los Angeles in 2028. Who knows, maybe one of your favorite Tar Heel athletes will decide to start playing handball by then.


Chryss Watts

“Gone Pro: North Carolina: Tar Heel Stars That Became Pros” by Tim W. Jackson the-results-handball