Humans of beach handball: Daniela Mendes
Portuguese beach handball player Daniela Mendes credits the sport she fell in love with at first sight with giving her joy and meaning after a tough start in life.
Daniela Mendes had her first contact with handball at the age of six, because one of her best friends also played and was always urging her to join.
“At first I was very ashamed, I didn't want to stay, but after gaining some confidence there I stayed and enjoyed it more and more. Then I spent 16 years at CALE, a handball club in Leça,” she recalls.
Her journey into beach handball also came about through friendships and a search for fun.
“It was a way for us to all be together, we slept in tents, beach handball was a little different than it is now. The professionalisation of beach handball has been increasing,” explains Mendes.
Now, at the age of 28, Mendes represents six-time national champions GRD Leça.
“At GRD we have high goals, we are six-time champions and we want to become European champions again. Our club and national team have made this sport even more serious and we have to take advantage of it, because having the opportunity to represent our country doing what we love most is a huge privilege,” she says.
Although Mendes has represented Portugal and featured twice on the Beach Handball Champions Cup All-star Team, she says success came only after a lot of work.
“At first I didn’t score a goal. I had to train a lot, until I started to really enjoy handball and started to commit myself even more. It's not luck, it's a lot of work,” she says.
“Since March, our team has been training to play in July. And no other club does this in Portugal. We agreed to dedicate a lot of our free time to beach handball. There's always a little talent obviously, but it's mainly work. That’s what really makes the difference,” explains Mendes.
However, Mendes says beach handball still needs more support from the likes of the Portuguese Handball Federation.
“There is still a lot of difference between indoor handball and beach handball. We have competitive teams, we placed well in the European and World Championships. We always maintain a very high level of competition and we would like to have more support, believe us.”
In the 2023 edition of the Champions Cup, GRD Leça finished seventh and Mendes does not hide her frustration about the result.
“I know we could have gone further in this last Champions Cup, we lost in the quarter-finals in a shoot-out, but that is also the magic of beach handball. Pure unpredictability. I feel like we could have gone further, but we will continue to work hard to improve,” she says.
Mendes thinks more can be achieved, particularly for Portugal’s women’s teams.
“I feel that women are more committed than men. And it is through this mentality that I believe we can grow even more. I always want more, I want to achieve more goals in beach handball. At the moment beach handball makes me happier than indoor, also because of the team spirit that exists,” says the 28-year-old.
The prospect of beach handball becoming an Olympic sport is one which makes Mendes’ eyes light up.
“We really want it, it would be good for our country to see that it's an Olympic sport. We are not here to play for fun, we want to inspire other kids to practise this sport and this Olympic visibility would be really important. Let's hope this happens in the future. The sooner the better, because I would still like to participate in an Olympic Games and I'm getting old,” she laughs.
Mendes also thinks Portugal would have a better chance at a medal on the beach.
“In both the men’s and women’s categories, we would be able to reach the podium,” she says with confidence.
But Mendes’ success has come after a tough start in life. Born in the beachside town of Matosinhos, north of Porto, she had to become independent very early on.
“I started working when I was 17, I've lived alone since I was 23. I've always paid for my studies, my driving licence, my car.
“Unfortunately, several years ago, my mother suffered a stroke. I have a little brother and I became an adult very early, I was a mother and a housewife. In the blink of an eye my life took a 180 degree turn,” she explains.
“But handball made me a much happier person, where I could forget my problems during training and games. This sport has made me a person with more goals, with a stronger mentality and a less frustrated person as well. And now I dream of one day being a mother. This is the greatest goal in life,” adds Mendes.
Mendes says the best advice she received during her career came from fellow national beach handball player Helena Côrro, who told her: “You admire the quality of others, but sometimes you forget the enormous quality that you have.”
Now, more than ever, Mendes believes in her abilities and what that could bring for the future.
Photos © Uros Hocevar, Sasa Pahic Szabo, Jozo Cabraja / kolektiff images