Dwight, at left, second row (in hat), from team handball’s 20-year reunion in Lake Placid, New York.
While Olympic swimming, gymnastics and women’s soccer and beach volleyball seemed to capture attention of the masses during the (2012 summer) London games, the UMKC School of Education’s Associate Clinical Professor Mary Phyl Dwight focused on the lesser known team handball, “staying up late or [getting up] early in the morning to watch,” she said.
Despite a following of 7 million players worldwide, it’s a sport that’s still fairly unknown in the U.S. but nonetheless, one that’s near and dear to Mary Phyl’s heart—as a former U.S. Olympian herself!
The School of Education Dean’s Office caught up with Mary Phyl this summer to learn more about her nine years on the National Team, her team’s 4th place finish at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and her worldwide travels for the sport where she competed in more than 100 international games on five continents and in 28 countries. Additionally, her work as technical director for team handball for the Special Olympics was acknowledged by Special Olympics Founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
When did you start playing handball?
“I started playing in 1975 after a tryout in Ames, Iowa, where they were looking for multisport athletes to try this game new to USA. It is not much in the U.S.—like soccer used to be many years ago. I had just graduated as a multisport college athlete and my athletic director told me about the tryouts.”
Was going to the Olympics a childhood dream?
“Yes, the Olympics was a childhood dream, even though I was pre Title IX and had no opportunity for any organized high school sports. I played varsity softball, volleyball, basketball, track, and cross country at Southwest Missouri State.”
What was your training regime like?
“I was a full time athlete and lived at US Olympic Training Centers for the 2 ½ years leading up to the 1984 games. Over the ten years on the National team, I lived about 4 years as a full time athlete. The rest of the time, I trained at home (had a college coaching job) and went on competition trips. When we were living at the Olympic Training Centers, we basically trained twice a day, made various competition trips for 3-4 weeks at a time in Europe, Asia, and Africa.”
What did it mean to you to represent the United States at the ’84 Olympics on our ‘home turf?’
“Playing at home was special. My family was able to attend and we had great home town crowds even though people were seeing handball for the first time! They were cheering for USA! Coming from behind and winning our first game against China was a highlight of the games.”
You’ve traveled the world in your role for the Special Olympics. What country or one person whom you met had the greatest impact on you?
“For Special Olympics, I held clinics in several countries and directed the Special Olympics team handball competition at several International Summer Special Olympic Games. During a clinic trip to Calcutta, India, our small group of three was able to meet with Mother Theresa for tea. She was so interested in what we were doing with Special Olympians—what a special person who embodied the difference just one person can make in another person’s life.”
This article originally appeared in 2012.