Looking Back to BHM: Ebiye Udo-Udoma

Looking Back to BHM: Ebiye Udo-Udoma

Ebiye Jeremy Udo-Udoma, also known as the Handball Ninja, is the captain of the USA Beach Handball Team. He led his team on their debut at The World Games this July in Birmingham, Alabama. And what a great debut it was: Team USA finished fourth, losing the Bronze match to the team that has dominated The World Games until now, Brazil.

My experience in Birmingham was incredible!”, Udo-Udoma says. “Being able to play in front of an American crowd in a stadium is not an opportunity I get to have very often in Beach Handball. The local fans and volunteers in Birmingham were great to interact with, as well as the athletes from other countries and sports before, during, and after The Games. And on top of all of that the musical performances were fantastic!

The World Games 2022 was my first opportunity to compete in a multi-sport event stateside. Being the last country to walk out at the Opening Ceremony and having a full stadium’s worth of people chanting “USA-USA” alongside the other members of the Team USA delegation, while my friends and family watched me on the Olympic Channel, was one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had in life so far.

After doing a lot of sport as a child, Ebiye Udo-Udoma won the 2012 Harlem Globetrotters Online Talent Search in 2012, and a scout steered him to a Team USA Handball try-out. He went on to debut in Handball at 20 years of age, and has since gone on to win gold at the Pan-American Championships with the US Beach Handball team, and even have a number of goals go viral.

He says Beach Handball is a very special team sport: “There are relatively few team sports, in my opinion, in which the process of getting better at the sport is very intricately linked to the process of becoming a better, healthier human being. The power, poise, intelligence, grace and collectivism that’s needed to be successful in Beach Handball are qualities that will serve anyone in life away from the sand as well. It’s a sport I can give my all to, and I know I’ll walk away from it in great health whenever I choose to retire. And as with many beach sports, our playing venues tend to be on the aesthetically pleasing side :) 

Ebiye Udo-Udoma has also played Handball, the indoor version of the sport. He describes the main differences between the two disciplines: “Outside of the differences in playing surface, i.e. sand vs. hardwood court, in Beach Handball there are 2-point goals and 1-point goals, as opposed to every goal just being worth 1 point. Also a shorter court (21M x 12M vs 40M x 20M), shorter game length (10 minute periods vs 30 minute periods), and a different overtime system in which Beach Handball has a dynamic, hockey-style shootout, while Handball has a soccer-style, at-the-spot shootout system.

When asked which other sport of The World Games he would compete in if needed, he has several options in mind. “Realistically it’d be Flying Disc or Parkour, as those are disciplines I had direct experience with in high school & college, although I think I could have proficiency in some of the other ball sports like Fistball, Flag Football, or Korfball with my Beach Handball background.

What is your greatest strength in Beach Handball?

Different Beach Handball analysts may give you different answers to this question, but I think the notable thing that separates me from other Beach Handball players is my ability to pass and shoot with either hand. It’s a strength that adds a layer of unpredictability to my game, whilst aiding my capacity to find or create solutions on the court.

How does The World Games differ from World Championships or other tournaments in your sport?

On the court not much differs as far as the actual game being played, it’s just that The World Games is the most exclusive tournament in the sport to get into with only 8 qualifying teams per gender. At Beach Handball World Championships 16 teams per gender qualify, and at the World Beach Games it’s 12 teams each gender.

Did you manage to see other sports in Birmingham? What did you see or what would you have loved to see?

Yes! The Beach Handball competition concluded on the 15th of July, which allowed me and my team-mates the opportunity to see events that had their finals on the 16th. I got to see Racquetball, Ju-Jitsu, Gymnastics (Aerobic & Rhythmic and Acrobatic & Trampoline), and Canoe Polo.

I wish there was enough time to see literally every event in person after my competition requirements were over, especially those events involving athletes I met in the athlete village from different countries during The Games.

How has your life been after The World Games? What do you besides sport?

I didn’t have too much time to decompress after The World Games, as I competed in Poland less than two weeks after the Closing Ceremony and had to immediately turn my attention post-Birmingham towards trying to win the Polish Summer Superliga with my team SAS Gdańsk. Additionally, the US Beach Handball Tour had remaining tournaments in 2022, as well as my national team competing in international friendlies towards the end of the year, so it wasn’t until November that I got to relax at all. 2022 was a busy year full of ups and downs, but USA Team Handball rewarded me with an Athlete of the Year award for my efforts, so I’ll say life is good.

Besides sport I…sleep :D My life revolves around playing, refereeing, educating, training, serving on a Board of Directors, studying, content creating, analyzing, and coaching athletes in some combination of sports. Even my preferred “hobby” has a competitive discipline in The World Games: Latin Dance.

Will we see you in Chengdu at The World Games 2025?

I had the opportunity to compete in China in 2018 and it was one of the best experiences of my career, I’d love to go back! However, Chengdu unlike Birmingham does not provide us Americans with automatic qualification, and the journey to get there will be more difficult than it was for The World Games 2022. That said, we will do our best in 2024 to qualify to compete in TWG2025!

The Handball Ninja also got some questions from social media:

Your normal jersey number is #10 but why did you specifically wear #4 in Birmingham?

I wish I could say it was for a grand sentimental reason, but there was just a wardrobe malfunction with one of my three #10 jerseys right before the competition and the #4 set was the only other full set in a fitting jersey size we had there. Maybe that jinxed us for a 4th place finish at The World Games :D

What have been the biggest challenges in your career?

Playing a sport that has relatively little popularity within your own country comes with a unique set of challenges, albeit with a unique set of blessings as well. Most American handball players didn’t grow up playing the sport as kids. Playing with athletes who have non-traditional skill sets and figuring out styles of play that leverage the skills those athletes have already cultivated in the sports they’ve previously played has been one of the biggest challenges as a national team player and Beach Athlete Director for USA Team Handball.

Should Canoe Polo be in the Olympics??

Why not? The sport is intense and exciting to watch!

How much training time did you have with the team before The World Games?

It depends on how you would define “the team”. Half of the squad I trained with regularly in Southern California throughout the year when we didn’t otherwise have club competition conflicts. If you’re asking specifically about the 10 players on our roster in Birmingham, that particular group had seven days training together after the conclusion of our IHF World Championships in Greece before the start of the Beach Handball competition at The World Games.

How do you always stay so positive?

Coming out of high school I didn’t receive a scholarship to play collegiate sports and towards the start of my international athletic career I was living out of my car. As of today I’ve competed in 20+ countries across 6 continents and have fans around the world who wear merchandise with my likeness on it. I’ve kept a photo album with screenshots of kind messages I’ve received throughout my career from other athletes, coaches, and fans who’ve seen me compete or follow me on socials and it’s several hundred deep at this point from people across various ages, genders, and ethnicities. Win, lose, or draw I remind myself that what I’ve gotten to do and what I’m getting to do is beyond what a younger me ever even dreamed of, so the relative trials and tribulations that naturally accompany an athlete’s journey seem trivial in the grander scheme of things. There will always be new challenges, obstacles, and hurdles to overcome. There will always be winter days alongside summer ones, metaphorically speaking, but considering I’m not living out of my car anymore and I’ve got my health, people that appreciate me, and a game that I love I’m not in a place to complain about life. There’s a saying that “what appreciates appreciates”, and I just try to be appreciative of life.

 The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association, organised with the support of the International Olympic Committee. The World Games 2022 was held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 7-17 July 2022. 3,600 athletes from 34 sports and 100 countries took part in the Games. The 12th edition of The World Games will be held in Chengdu, CHN in 2025.