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SALT LAKE CITY — Watching team handball is akin to watching basketball with a little lacrosse thrown in or water polo without the water.
The game has moments of subtle strategy combined with loads of furious action as six pretty athletic-looking players hurl a volleyball-size sphere with the density of a soccer ball at a goalie — wearing no protection, by the way — at up to 75 miles an hour.
There are hard fouls, forearm shivers and even some inadvertent tackling. In other words, it's not for the faint of heart.
However, there is also plenty of sportsmanship — opposing players often help each other up when they take a fall and there is an "unwritten" rule against purposely throwing the ball at another player's head.
Over 500 male and female athletes comprising 28 teams from around the country are participating in the USA Team Handball National Championships, a three-day event at the Salt Palace Convention Center. The eventual men's and women's national champions will be crowned at the conclusion of the tournament on Sunday.
While team handball isn't all that well known in America, it is one of the more popular sports in Europe and South America. But its popularity in the U.S. is on the rise, according to Mark Ortega, captain of the U.S. men's team handball squad.
"It's definitely grown in the past few years," he said. "There was a point … where there was nothing. (Now) it's starting to take off."
For the most part, team handball is made up of club teams where players spend their own money to participate. So many play with a pure passion for the game rather than dreams of a one day earning a million-dollar contract.
Lindon native Terrance Cardon is a member of one of the junior national teams for athletes 19-and-under. He said discovering team handball has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his young life.
"The fast pace is awesome. I love it", he said. "I'm just going to keep working hard (to get better)."
Speaking about the national championships, Steve Pastorino, general manager of USA Team Handball, said the teams aren't just playing for fun or pride, noting that team handball became an official Olympic sport in 1972. Several handball Olympians will participate in festivities this weekend, as USA Team Handball counts down toward the 2011 Pan American Games in October — the first qualifying event for the 2012 Olympic Games.
In fact, the USA Women’s National Team has already qualified for the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The USA Men’s National Team is three weeks away from a showdown with Guatemala and Uruguay in Guatemala City, with the winner earning the final berth in the 2011 Pan Am Games. Salt Lake Handball Club standout Guillermo Acevedo became the first SLHC player to make the U.S. national team when he was named to the Guatemala roster last week. Pastorino said good showings by the U.S. teams in international competition this year could lead to big things in 2012.
"If the men and women succeed in their qualifiers, this time next summer, we'll be watching some of these athletes in London" in 2012, Pastorino said.