Nathan and Aston-Grant Williams have gone from taking up handball during their GCSEs to playing and studying in Denmark. Here’s their story.
Our Handball journey began when we were introduced to the sport aged 14, in our school GCSE P.E. class. To be honest we didn’t think much of it in the beginning. I’m not sure what happened on that day for us to not enjoy it but we didn’t. However, a few weeks later a friend of ours convinced us to join the school team, which is when we started to develop a real liking for the game. Within the first few months of trying handball we went to a school tournament which allowed us showcase our new skills. It took a bit longer for Aston as he spent the duration of the competition as a goalkeeper. He performed well though, making multiple crucial saves in both active play and from penalties against a lot of strong teams. I think he might have missed his calling as a handball goalkeeper!
The following year we were selected for the Bedfordshire county team where we participated in both county and regional competitions. It was during a county tournament that we were spotted by our future coach Bobby White. Apparently, Bobby asked our teacher and coach: “Why does number 15 keep changing his shirt number to 8 when he comes off?” When he got the reply “Oh no there are two of them, twin brothers” he said: “Perfect I’ll have them both”. To this day we still find this an amusing story!
We were then invited to our first England Handball trials. We were super nervous to say the least, but we worked hard and made the necessary improvements asked of us for the following training session a few months later. It was amazing that we were selected for an Under-16 Tri-nations competition between England, Scotland and Germany. It was the biggest sporting moment of our lives at the time and we achieved it all within a space of a year – all playing for the age group above us and not being part of a handball club.
The following year we were approached by Bobby to join his handball team, along with a few other local players who hadn’t found a club yet, to form the first Under-18 Oly Cats team. We played for Oly Cats at both youth and senior level for three years, all the time developing as players. During this period we were honoured with the opportunity to take part in the AASE programme. This gave us the chance to train and play, and also learn about areas such as nutrition, psychology and lifestyle management. That is learning which we can put on our CV’s or for university applications. The course also gave us a chance to travel to different locations like Denmark to represent England in international games and tournaments.
After finishing AASE you are presented with an opportunity to attend Idrætshøjskole in Aarhus, Denmark to take part in their handball academy on a scholarship. We decided to do this to better ourselves as handball players – and to experience the life and culture of Denmark. This was one of our best decisions. The time there was not just enjoyable but our skill level developed rapidly through keeping up with the pace of Danish Handball, and learning from excellent coaches, as well as former and current players. Nathan was nominated to the GB Under-20’s longlist and was selected to take part in the IHF emerging nations in Kosovo in 2018. After our year in Denmark we returned to England but dreamed of going back to Denmark after falling in love with the culture and, of course, handball.
I was one of the first players to come through the (Development) AASE Performance Programme with England Handball and go on to play Handball professionally in Europe (Post Olympics).
When I was asked to write a blog it reminded me of when I was first asked to try handball in school eight years ago when I was 15 years old. I started the game at an age which is seen by many as too late. However, if you commit and have a passion for handball, or anything for that matter, you can achieve, I’m sure of that.
If I got a pound for every time I get the question “The handball player from England… are they even any good?” I’d be rich! However, I can sit here and say I’m proud of how much I have developed as a player. I’m indebted to my teacher Mr Baker, now a good friend, from The Bromfords School in Essex, who introduced me to handball. I’m also thankful to the support of the coaches at England Handball and British Handball who helped me develop as a player. They continue to support and motivate new generations of players back in England through the expanding network of coaches who are growing the sport and developing talent. Add to that the developments made over the years in school and university handball, and the strengthening of the English leagues – things are looking good.
So, a bit more about my time away as a handball player. Handball has given me many amazing experiences (and difficult ones) on court, and in life in general. It’s given me the opportunity to play handball at the highest level all over the world and meet some amazing people along the way. I have now played close to four years in Europe. I spent two seasons at AC Fafe playing in the Portuguese 1st division. It was a tough introduction to the world of professional handball, and a period that tested my mental strength, after I suffered ankle and knee ligament injuries. During those two years I spent most of my time working hard on my recovery.
I told myself I needed a fresh start away from Portugal after those difficulties and I’ve spent the last season-and- a-half playing for Vestas Balonmano Alarcos Ciudad Real in the Spanish 2nd league. It was a great experience, getting a taste of high-level handball so close to the 1st league, and working with good coaches and teammates. I had a great time in Spain as the team got to the play-offs for promotion to Asobal. However, half way through this season I had the opportunity to return to Portugal, which I accepted, and am starting this new year with Povoa Andebol Clube in the Portugese 2nd Division. It’s an exciting project and our goal is to go up to the 1st Division. So far we are on track. I’m excited for the remainder of the season and the challenge to get the club to the top league.
All-in-all I’ve had the pleasure of playing against very established teams and have gained valuable experience. This has helped me gain confidence to go on and help in my clubs, and at international level for Great Britain. Last summer the national team achieved the best post-Olympics finish for a GB Men’s programme, finishing in the Final4 of the IHF Emerging Nations. This was an amazing achievement for us, and all the players and staff can be proud of the progress we’ve made as a self-funded team. For me personally it meant a lot more. There’s been some tough times over the last three-to-four years, particularly getting over my injuries. However, moments like representing your country and helping make history, makes me proud and lets me know it was all worth it