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EHF Champions League

This is me: Anja Althaus

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Even years after retiring from her on-court duties, Anja Althaus remains one of the most well-known women in handball. The three-time EHF Champions League winner, one of the Faces of the #ehfcl, is also known for her exuberant hairstyles (even Dirk Nowitzki asked her to do his hair!) and for being a genuinely energetic and funny person with stories that could easily fill a book. In this episode of the This is me... series, she shares many of those stories with us.

THIS IS ME: Anja Althaus

In 1982, I was born into a handball-family in the handball-crazy city of Magdeburg – my mother played handball and even was a line player, my aunts – twins - played handball, only my father was a track and field athlete. Only some weeks after giving birth to me, my mother was playing again, and from that moment I grew up in handball arenas. But nobody in our family pushed or forced me to play handball, and in my early days I even tried different sports. After only one day at canoe I quit, because it was raining the whole day – and from that moment on, I knew that I would never do any more outdoor sports. Then I played table tennis – but finally it was obvious quite early that I would choose handball.

When I started at the mini team at SC Magdeburg, I was one of the tallest players – and funny enough our first youth team stayed and played together until we were adults, we became German youth and junior champions later and some even made it to the younger age national teams. To be honest, in this group I definitely had not been the one with the biggest talent, others were much better. I only wanted to have the ball in my hands – and did not want to run, this was my problem. Later, at the entrance test for the sports school I almost failed in running. My mother was jogging with me, otherwise I would have been out, and it was only one, two rounds in the stadium. And little Anja would never have thought that 20 years later she loves to run.

As I was born in former GDR, I profited from the great talent support and sports system at the famous sports school at Magdeburg. In handball, boys and girls were in the same class and we played together – and we had a great class, with later-on top stars and former national team players such as Bennet Wiegert, today’s coach of SC Magdeburg, Christoph Theuerkauf, who also works in the club again, or Christian Schöne, now sports director at Frisch Auf Göppingen. And our girls, born in 1982, were a class of their own in German handball – and we were like a family.

One of our coaches at school was Ingolf Wiegert, father of Bennet, 1980 Olympic champion, later coach at Magdeburg and for the women’s national team, but the one, who imprinted me most and who discovered and fostered my talent, was Hubert Lindner, who was our coach at school and in the club.

At a GDR sports school, you had two training sessions per day, one before the start of the school and one in the afternoon, and the school took also care that you would pass your exams, even when you were out with your teams. Due to this intense training, we were better than the rest. I remember the first casting for the German youth national team, and almost our whole starting six from Magdeburg were nominated for the start. I remember our matches in the famous Hermann-Gieseler Arena, in which SC Magdeburg men won all their trophies and what was a magic place for handball.

I had started playing as back court player, but at the age of 14 switched to the line player position. When I was 16, I played for the youth team of SC Magdeburg, but also for the women’s team of HC Niederndodeleben in the second division – as SCM announced that they would only focus on men’s handball. And looking back, this handball basics at Magdeburg imprinted my whole handball career, it was a perfect start. And though I never liked to go to school, I finally finished my exam – but my full focus was on handball.

As my mother was still a player, when I was 14 or 15, I trained with my youth team, my women’s team and her team – two days per week I had three sessions, I was really ambitious and willing to fight. And I learnt so much from “the old ladies of Magdeburg”, though our youth coach always pointed out: Never look there, how they warm up – because they did not warm up, but  simply played. And as my mother was line player too, we great duels in the training. When I was 16, I was too strong for them. Overall, I received such a strong support from my parents – without them, it never would have been possible for me to play handball on that level.

As I was playing for the German youth team already, it was an obligation to play for a first or second division club – but the start at Niederndodeleben was a disaster: Already in the third match I tore my cruciate ligament – six month before the U17 EHF EURO, which was carried out at Germany. The coach said, when you manage to be fit, I will nominate you. I trained as hard as I could, I was sweating in rehab – and after only five months, I was back on track, ready for the European Championships. But the coach Dago Leukefeld did not nominate me. I was so disappointed and so angry, and I felt this coach does not like me. I had my dreams and goals: I wanted to win the Champions League, I wanted to play at Olympic Games, I wanted to play abroad – and then such a setback happened.

But looking back now, Dago Leukefeld also my paved my way, and I have to be grateful for his support, as later-on, he was my club coach, when I became a women’s national team player. But from those days, I know that everything is about fighting hard for your goals, I never had it easy, I knew that I always had to go my way with head, heart and passion. You can manage everything, even if you are not the biggest talent. Anja never gives up, never! This is my nature, my motto and my character. Those first setbacks even made me stronger, strengthened my will.

When I was 17, I received some offers from Bundesliga clubs, and as I had finished my school, I was ready to leave home. And in retrospect, it was the perfect decision to go to Trier. My parents agreed but only under one requirement: Parallel to handball, I had to start an apprenticeship. My only business dreams had been handball player or Formula 1 driver, but finalIy found a job, which I even had not known before: I started working in the company of one of the club managers and created neon advertising signs.

I was far from home, had my first apartment, and played handball on a quite professional level in a great team – a mix of youngsters from my generation like Maren Baumbach and experienced stars such as Svetlana Minevskaya and Svetlana Mozgowaia – former world champions and Champions League winners. We learnt from them, they learnt from us. Still, I played quite emotional and tough in defence – and in my first seasons, I had always been the top of the table in terms of suspensions and red cards. But I learnt to control my emotions on court.

Trier – the city, the club and the team – has imprinted my life, became my second home besides Magdeburg, I will keep this city always in my heart. I developed on and off the court. And I found friends for lifetime, including my best friend of all: Shenia Minevskaya, daughter of Svetlana, who later-on also became German national team player. Svet was like a mother for me, she protected us little chicks, and I took care on little Shenia. And as line player I never before and after received passes like those of Svetlana Minevskaya, incredible.

Two years after Dago Leukefeld arrived as a coach, we became German champions with a real dream team – followed by my first Champions League season. My first ever match in this competition was a qualifier on Madeira, we won, passed the next qualification round, and then we saw the real world of handball, facing Togliatti, Dunaferr and Valencia in the group phase – after which we failed. But those matches were giant experiences. I knew, Champions League will be my competition, even as Champions League in 2004 was completely different to what it is nowadays.

After Magdeburg, Trier was my second gate to the world of handball, and in 2007, a new gate opened – I fulfilled my next dream to make it abroad. Like many other German players at that time, I moved to Denmark, joined top club Viborg HK, and arrived in a totally different world. I rather could not speak any English, and I still remember my presentation at Viborg, which was another disaster as I was interviewed. “I am a funny person”, was my only sentence.

But I was integrated quite quick – as my second profession like so often helped me: After finishing my apprenticeship as advertisement sign producer, I decided to become a stylist. But unfortunately in Germany, you have to have another apprenticeship as hairdresser before. So I started this job – and during a test tournament in 2006, I styled Heidi Astrup’s hair. Thanks to this and of course thanks to my performance at this tournament, I was in touch with Viborg. Finally, we agreed on my transfer – and during my time in Viborg, I worked as a hairdresser, which improved my Danish language skills a lot and I even had a little salon in my flat, where all the male and female players of the club came to get their hair cut and styled and relaxed on my sofa.

On sportive level, I played with world stars and handball legends such as the Lunde twins or Bojana Popovic. To reach their level, I needed to leave my comfort zone, it was a real challenge. After a tough first season it got better and better – and finally and under a new coach – Jakob Vestergaard - I could even tip my second dream in 2009: we won the Champions League. I would have loved to have a big party, but on the night flight back home, the rest of the team was sleeping. “We have to prepare for the next league match, so we have to recover” was what I heard instead of “Where is the party?” We recovered, won the Danish league in the next week - and then we made a huge party.

I fell in love with this Danish mentality, the full focus, the professional life, but also getting more relaxed. I really calmed down there – and I learnt how to control and to focus my energy and emotions on court. And it was a different world compared today – there was no Instagram, all experiences were live. I learnt so much about handball in Viborg – and I learnt to speak proper Danish and English. And I got to know that after any transfers in a different country it takes some time to settle, in all perspectives. And playing in this club even strengthened my will, I knew, I can reach everything, if I only want to do it.

But when a new coach arrived at Viborg, following on Jakob Vestergaard, with whom we won the Champions League twice, I knew it is time to leave and to open another new gate. I returned to Germany – and I had the plan to build-up something for my future outside handball. We still played Champions League – we even were close to become the first German club to make it to the semis – but unfortunately in the crucial quarter-final match against Vardar, my last shot missed the goal, and we missed the EHF FINAL4. Failures and setbacks belong to sports, this lesson is what I learnt.

But instead of starting my business life – maybe with a hairdresser’s salon - in Germany, another phone call changed my life. It was Tanja Medved, that time working for Vardar Skopje. I had been awarded best defence player of the EHF EURO 2012 in Serbia – and Vardar were looking for a defence specialist. Like in many other occasions a saying came true: “If I would have only listened to the opinion of others, I never would have had this life.” Many people told me to stay in Germany, as I was already 30 years old and had to raise a family and start a new job. “You are not good enough for a team like Vardar.” No! I wanted to grab this chance. I had my dream of finishing my career by winning the Champions League – and I knew for myself: Anja, it is not over yet!

The fourth gate of my handball life opened at the banks of River Vardar. And this decision saved my body and my career. In Germany and Denmark, constantly playing Bundesliga and Champions League had left its marks in all bones and ligaments, as quite often I restarted to quick after injuries. In Skopje, the only focus was on Champions League, I could recharge my batteries. The super-professional medical staff at Vardar – doctors, physiotherapists, my athletic coach Marija Lojanica and so on – extended my career for some years. I felt really fit again, and I was ready to rumble with a different group of world stars such as Andrea Lekic, Amandine Leynaud and many others.

And right from the start, I recognized a handball-euphoria and a pride I had never witnessed before. I still remember after my first match for Vardar I was in a supermarket, and a old and poor man came to me, handing me a chocolate bar: “I do not have much, but this is my gift for you. Welcome to Skopje, and thank you that you came here and to play for us,” said this old man – and I had tears in my eyes. And the support from the stands was incredible, this city, this country lives handball, breathes handball, eats and drinks handball. And I was hungry for more – mainly in terms of raising the Champions League trophy at the FINAL4 Budapest.

When I won the titles with Viborg in 2009 and 2010, the system was different, there was one week between two finals, you could rest, prepare and wait. With the FINAL4 system, the whole season cumulates in 24 hours – either it ends with joy, happiness and a trophy, or with tears. There is nothing bigger than this weekend. With Vardar, I made it to Budapest three times, twice we lost the semis, once we made it to the final – but lost it against Györ in 2017 after extra-time.

I had a perfect match, scored six goals from six attempts - but finally we lost. It was supposed to be the last match of my career – and everything went as I had dreamt of: play a final, win a trophy and then retire. It all ended in tears, I still remember the press conference after the final, when a river of tears was flowing. And my emotions had such an emotional impact on all people around. When walking back to the tunnel to the dressing room, I met David Szlezak, managing director of EHF Marketing and a former national team and Bundesliga player. He tried to console me – and handed me over the official playing ball of the final. This is my trophy, still in my living room– and it was the start of another chapter of my life, working for the EHF.

Some weeks later, the EHF had invited me to the Men’s EHF FINAL4 in Cologne right after our final – as a guest of honour. And as there was no German team, I was the only German there. My first official duty after my retirement was supposed to be for the EHF. But only some days prior to my trip to Cologne I received another phone call: Györ was calling – and when they call you, you never say no. Instead of being a private person after my handball life, my career continued for one more year, though I had asked myself: Are you still good and fit enough to stand playing Hungarian league and Champions League?

It was an extra-ordinary time in Skopje – and it was obvious that I wanted to continue living in this great city. Compared to Viborg, it was so different, I was so different. After running years and years from competition to competition, I found the time to enjoy the matches, I found out which incredible experience it is to play Champions League, and in which great world I was living. I fell in love with those heartfelt people in Skopje, with their pride, their enthusiasm, their love for handball. They are not rich in terms of money, but they are so rich in terms of emotions – like when they sing their national anthem.

This is something, my German compatriots can learn from the Macedonians. Their love is beyond price. I love the Balkan mentality, the people there are ahead of us Germans in so many aspects. I am proud of almost 250 matches for Germany, playing in the jersey with the eagle, but their pride is so different. I really appreciate this. This is one reason, why I still live in Skopje.

But first another chapter of my book of life opened when I arrived at Györ, though I really suffered from back problems for a long time in the previous season. I thought I had danced my last dance at this FINAL4 in 2017, but there was still more to come. My head was not sure, my heart said: go on. And there was still my dream to finish my career on the winners’ podium of the Champions League.

In 2018, I fulfilled it. Again, I learnt a lot about my strengths and weaknesses, and again it was a priceless experience with this team of legends. The fans in Hungary are as crazy and frenetic as in Skopje, the level in the Hungarian league is the best of the world at that time. It was a thriller to win the Hungarian championship, as finally only the goal difference decided between us and FTC. And then we made it to the FINAL4 – and we won it. I was so happy that my heart had beaten the head, when I had to decide to extend my career for one more year. It was simply perfect.

Playing on club level is different to playing national team – and in terms of silver ware it was a huge difference for me. My only medal with Germany’s women was bronze at the 2007 World Championship, though we had a really golden generation with Nadine Krause, our goalkeepers Clara Woltering and Sabine Englert, Maren Baumbach and many more. But we failed three times in semi-finals, and finished fourth twice – funny enough for the last time in Skopje. And with the U20 team we won the bronze medal at the World Championship in Györ – both cities later-on imprinted my life.

But the biggest thing you can be part of is Olympic Games – not even comparable with winning the Champions League. We made it to Beijing in 2008, and those two weeks were the biggest experience of my life. Unfortunately, not from the sportive point of view – we lost three matches by one goal and were eliminated after the preliminary round – but from everything else.

Our handball teams were accommodated in the same building as the basketball team – including German legend Dirk Nowitzki. And right before the opening ceremony, they all asked me to colour their hair with the Olympic rings, as they found out that I am a hairdresser. I told them yes, I will do, but not for Dirk Nowitzki. He was Germany’s flag bearer at Beijing, and all the world will see him entering the stadium, then I did not want to be the reason of crazy colours in his hair.

But after the opening ceremony I did it with shivering hands – and we talked a lot. This sports legend is still with his feet on the ground, and this is what I learnt: Remain humble, even if you are a huge star. Just remain a normal human being, even when you are a role model for everybody. And I found out in Beijing: Every training session, every pain is worth it, when you make it to Olympic Games. Especially in a sport like handball, in which the number of Olympic spots is so little.

Looking back, Beijing were the best days of my handball life. Ten years later, my active handball life came to an end, winning my third Champions League trophy with Györ. And I had a plan for my future, as I had agreed with EHF to become Women’s Champions League ambassador, so I switched from being a player to being a kind of media person. It was my job to push the Women’s Champions League on social media and to travel to matches to do interviews with players.

Funny enough, my first jobs were at Hungary, first at FTC, then at Györ. It was strange to come to Györ to interview those players I had played with some weeks ago. I had given many interviews before as a player, but first it felt strange to stand on the other side of the microphone – as I talked and talked and talked. And sometimes my tongue was quicker than my brain.

But like in handball, it was matter of experience and training. It got better and easier for me from week to week. I feel so honoured that EHF gave me the chance to do this job, which after one season turned from ambassador to “Face of the Women’s Champions League” alongside my colleagues Marcus and Hannah. And I work as commentator for several matches like in EHF Twitch shows. I love it to be such close to players and teams.

2019 was my first EHF FINAL4 in my new role, and it very strange and emotional. After Györ had won the trophy, I went to the dressing room to interview some players - and when I had left the dressing room, I started crying. I was so emotional. One year ago, I was standing there, celebrating, taking pictures - now I had finally understood that my career was over. It was a mad, crazy, terrifying and emotional moment to recognize that a new chapter of my life had begun. You need some time to realize that it is over.

Another part of my after-handball-career is a project I really love from my heart: “Respect your talent”. When I was a young player I would have loved to be part of this programme to learn from experienced stars, what is important for your career, away from handball. How to communicate, what to eat, how to prevent injuries, how to deal with setbacks – all those things are part of the EHF project, and I am proud to be one of the project ambassadors alongside other world stars such as Ivano Balic or Viktor Tomas. I like to share my knowledge and my experience with young players and I like to stay connected with this next generation and to see how they develop. I remember a course in Georgia, when a shy girl came to me and told me that she continued playing handball only because of my lesson in the “Respect your talent” programme.

Since 2021, I am also back at the court, as assistant of Goran Kuzmanovski, a great coach with a great future, for the RK Skopje 2020 club – my first professional steps as a coach. Parallel, I am working on my A coach exam. It is a great fun – when I was a player, I got really angry on some coaches, but now I can understand, how things work, and having this experience as a player, I will become a better coach. And I learnt that as a player your tasks are much easier compared to a coach – you just go to the training sessions and matches, do what the coach tells you and then go home. As a coach there is so much of preparation for every session.

For the mid-term future I really do not know what my plan will be – so many different gates have opened in my career by now, sometimes it was planned, sometimes it was surprising. Currently working with EHF and with the club is fun, being part of this EHF social media world fits perfectly, but sometimes a new path opens. The most important thing is that my heart must be infected by this new task. I heard, it takes six years after the end of a career that you do not feel and act as player anymore, so I still have plenty of time for this period.

I am 40 years old, so I still have so much time to find the right thing – and maybe after three more years an even better task occurs. You never know, this is what makes my life so exciting at the moment. But what I know is – handball and the people inside handball gave me so much, without the sport, my life would have been so different. So thanks, handball, for all you gave me – I hope to pay back in the next years. And I am ready, no matter what will become the next chapter of my handball life and which new gate will open.


Anja Althaus
January 2023

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