Last but not least in our IWD series is one true handball star. She inherited her love for handball from her mom and her aunts with whom she played at the beginning of her career. In her magnificent career, she played in top clubs. She played 243 matches for the German national team and won a bronze medal at IHF World Championship in 2007. She is a three-time Champions League winner and in 2019 she became the ambassador of the DELO EHF Champions League. During her career, her main goal was to challenge herself all the time and to always strive for being the best. She is Anja Althaus, and this is her inspirational story. Check it out!
You are a successful former handball player and now a coach as well. How did your handball story begin?
My mom and my aunts played handball. Mom and one of the aunts were line players and the other aunt was a goalkeeper. Before he got injured, my dad played football and handball. So, I come from a sports family. My mom gave birth to me, and she came back to the training so basically, I grew up on the handball court. I can say handball is in my genes. I tried other sports like table tennis and rowing, but I always came back to handball. I started playing when I was five years old. Then, when I was 16, I signed my first contract in the second Bundesliga, and I played with my aunt who was a great goalkeeper. That was pretty cool. I was the youngest one on the team. With 18 years, I signed a contract with the club from the first league in Germany and I needed to go 800 kilometers far from home to another club and basically, my career started then. And actually, during my time in the second Bundesliga I played back player and I was good. Before I broke my ligaments, I was in the top three scorers in the league. But for me it was a little bit boring to be in the back, I needed more action on the line, so I decided to go for the line player position. Like I said I got it from my mum and my aunt.
As a three-times DELO EHF Champions League winner, four-time national champion, bronze-medalist (WCh 2007), and best defensive player (EHF EURO 2012), what was your main motive during your playing career?
In the beginning, I always said I want to go to the Olympic Games, I want to become a national team player and I want to win the Champions League. Basically, during that time you are setting your goals and when you win the Champions League for the first time, you want to win it again. You also want to become the best player. I was never satisfied, I always wanted to be the best and to give my best. My motivation was not to be in the comfort zone because if you are in the comfort zone, you are not working on your development. That is why, when I had the best time in the clubs, I knew it was time for the next step. I always wanted to finish my career with the Champions League title, and I did it. Unfortunately, the German national team was never that successful like maybe we should have been. When I am looking back, I am a bit sad about that. In my private life, I like details and I like to focus on the details. I’m a very hard-working person. I love to work hard and to challenge myself. Basically, that was my motivation all the time – not to be satisfied.
Can you describe your experience in DELO EHF Champions League as a triple winner?
I have to be honest and say that I can’t remember everything because in those moments you are full of emotions. When I won my first title, I was thrilled, and I wanted to celebrate with my teammates. But we played in Hungary or Romania, we had obligations and we needed to catch the flight so there was no time for celebration. Also, we had some really important matches in the Danish league, so everyone was focused on that. For me, it was “Oh my God, I won the Champions League for the first time, and it is not like I expected to be”. Basically, I had some expectations, and it didn’t come out like I was hoping and dreaming for. I can’t describe the feeling, but I can say that my dreams came true. When I won my third title, I cried because last season when I played for the Vardar team, we lost the final match. And a year later I won my third Champions League title with Gyor. I was so grateful because that was the last season I played and during that last year I was surrounded by great players, people, and fans. I could never wish for a better last season. Actually, I’m speechless. It is very hard to describe, but I can tell you that it was the most amazing feeling.
After 18 years of your professional playing career, you decided to continue your handball path, but in a new role. Did you always know you are going to be a handball coach?
Actually no. In Viborg, they have the system – when you sign the contract, every player needs to be a coach to the younger players once a week in the morning practices. They have handball college, and the system is perfect, they are using their top players to make trainings. There you are thrown in the cold water, and you need to learn how to swim. In the beginning, I couldn’t speak Danish, my English was also not so good, and you have to train kids. I was 25 back then. Before I thought I will never be a coach and then I figured out I’m good with the kids and I love to share my experience with them. Two years later I became a coach to the U16 girls’ team, and I must say it was great because even then I already saw the different side. My angle changed a bit because I had to decide who will be in the first team and the second team. During that time, I grew as a player. I had a different view and I understood some of the coach’s decisions. There in Denmark I started to figure out I like being in the coach role and that I see myself there in the future. I also must admit I like the other side of the job. I didn’t know it from the beginning, but it developed in me and I’m grateful I found it in me because it helped me a lot as a player.
Did your perspective on handball change now that you are working as a coach? If yes, can you describe the difference between looking at handball as a player and as a coach?
My perspective changed already when I played in Viborg. I started to understand that coach needs to make plans. As a player, you often question the coach’s decisions. During my playing career in Viborg, I developed more as a player, and I learned not to lose my nerves and cry so much. Now I must admit that it is easier to be a player because when you are coming to the practice, everything is prepared. As a coach, you need to focus on so many different things and aspects like what you want to practice today, how you will do that, take care about absences, everyone’s preparation… Currently, I’m working as a coach in Macedonian Super Liga. I’m coaching young girls and boys. Also, I must admit that I’m still not fully thinking as a coach. In my head and heart, I’m still a handball player and I’m in the growing process as a coach. Someone told me that it needs seven years to start thinking like a coach and not a player. I know it needs time and a lot of work and I’m very grateful for everything.
What is the most interesting thing about your job as a handball coach? And what was the most interesting thing when you were a professional player?
As a coach, I don’t have to do warming up anymore because at the end of a career the hardest thing for me as a player was warming up for the games. I loved the life of the professional handball player. I loved fighting for my goals, my achievements, and basically every day, even when it was hard. It made me stronger as a person and it made me the person I am today. I wouldn’t be me without everything I went through. To be a professional player you must sacrifice a lot, but you also have a great life. I saw so many places in the world that I would probably never see. I meet so many great people in my life, I have friends all around the world. Of course, I also must mention winning the titles because when you are lifting the trophy in the air, playing in front of 10000 people, those are the moments, that someone who doesn’t have a passion for handball or is not a professional handball player would never understand. On the other side, the most interesting thing for me as a coach is to see my kids and my team succeed. Also, I am proud when they are starting to understand what I am trying to teach them and of course when they are winning. Sometimes I’m trying to help them, and I just want to play and show them. As a coach, it is so great to see when things are working out and players are growing, and you see you are doing a good job. I think this is the most interesting thing as a coach and I really like it.
You worked as a handball coach with youth teams. Was that the reason you engaged in EHF “Respect your talent” project? Can you describe the “Respect your talent” experience and what’s the project about?
I love this project. I gave my complete heart to this, and I admire EHF for making this project work. We are teaching that you can be the biggest talent, but talent is not all. We are sharing our experiences and helping them to make their way as professional handball players because today is not that easy to succeed. There are so many things you need to take care like social media and interviews. In my time you didn’t need to pay attention to social media you were just focusing on yourself. Even if you made an interview, it didn’t go viral like it does today. But the problem was that we didn’t have experience for interviews, and we didn’t know what to do or how to act. Today we are training them, we give them advice. I must say this project is really helping and I am still in the contact with the kids, which I met on the project and I’m so proud when I see them playing for the national team. I’m also looking forward to see the first ones from the project playing in the EHF Champions League. It is one of the greatest projects I have been part of and I’m extremely proud to be part of this.
Since November 2018 you are the ambassador of the DELO EHF Champions League. What is your job description?
After finishing my playing career, the EHF came directly to me with the idea to promote the Woman Champions League more. I think they came to me because of my personality because I like to talk a lot and I like to talk a lot about handball, but also, I know so many people. They said they would like me to do this project as the DELO EHF Champions League ambassador. In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing, I just know I got a microphone in my hand and was sent to the matches to do some interviews, talk with players, and handball superstars. I loved the idea because the players knew who I was, and I knew them, so it wasn’t a problem. After some time, I became the face of the EHF Champions League as well and joined my colleagues Hana and Marcus. Since last season, we are rotating so sometimes I do my work for the men’s and sometimes for the women’s league.
What does that mean to you and what does that mean for the sport in general?
With this project, we are trying, especially in these Covid-19 times, to bring more fans to follow handball and to have some interactions with them, not only at the stands. In addition, it’s good for the players because it’s a way to show behind the scenes or off the court, side of a player. I really love the job; I love it so much. I must say that after the first season we did this and we went on Final 4, fans came to me and said that they really loved what we are doing and to just keep going. It was a sign that we are doing something good. Of course, I developed myself through that and I learned what to pay attention to. I passed on that knowledge on the “Respect your talent” project as well.
Considering your international experience, you decided to settle in Skopje and work with the youth teams. Do you see yourself working with a senior team or maybe a national team in the future?
Yes, of course. Alongside youth teams, I am also working as an assistant coach for the men’s team who played in the Super League. So, I already stepped up there and I think I have a unique story. There are two women leading the men’s team, Andrijana Budimir and myself. Andrijana is from Serbia, she was also a handball player, a very successful one. She won the Champions League two times, and I won it three times. So, we are two women, two blondies who are leading the men’s team. I think that is a great story. I am currently learning and gaining experience, but I would like to lead the national team in the future. But I don’t put pressure on myself. I also worked with the women’s team here in Skopje who is competing in the highest league here. I think it’s great to be involved with both because it gives me even more experience.
What is your favourite handball memory?
One of my favourite memories would probably be the Olympic Games. That moment when we went out at the stadium for the opening ceremony, you don’t know what to do first – wave to the people around, but you don’t recognize anyone because there are so many people or to be on the phone with my mum, will she hear me, etc. So, I think that was the moment I would never forget in my life. Also, I would also like to mention the titles I won in the Champions League and the moments I had with my teammates and fans. I was never alone; they become your family. My favourite memory is also handball, everything that happened, no matter the good or bad.
Who in handball had the biggest impact on your career?
That is a difficult question to answer. The biggest impact on me had the moments where it didn’t work out so well or something I thought of was not going according to the plan. These situations made me continue and work even harder. So, I would say that the person who had the biggest impact is myself. I have a tattoo with a phoenix because I see myself as one. When I am burning down one day, I am rising up the next. Also, the coaches I worked with had an impact on my career, but I would not like to emphasize the specific names.
Is there any motto you use every day?
As I said before, I am like a phoenix. I start every day like that. When I go to sleep, it’s a new day, when I stand up it’s a new day in which I always give my best and make the best out of every day. My motto was always like that. No matter what happened yesterday, I cannot change what happened, but I can change what comes the next day. I am never afraid of trying. Even if I fail, I will continue to try. I will never give up. Never in my life.
You were also famous for your hairstyles. Which one was your favourite? And how come you had so many of them?
Oh yeah. When I was young, I loved to try so many things. I must say that now when I am watching these photos, I am thinking “Anja, what have you done there?”. But I am a very creative person, and I am not afraid to try something new and especially not now. This is a part of my character. I don’t have a favourite, but I like the one when I had some pink colour on the sides which were totally shaved. But I am a blondie now and I am very satisfied with that. I learned to do the hairdresser job, so I know how to cut hair, colour it and everything. I’m just crazy. I love to change things and I love to try things. That is a part of me, of my career, and my personality.
What projects except mentioned, are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I am the coach of three teams and my day is pretty busy. I have the men’s team in the morning, and in the evening, I train with youth teams. Also, I am working on individual trainings with the kids who want to have these kinds of trainings. As I mentioned before, I am working as the face for EHF and on the “Respect your talent” project which is not so often. During the weekdays I am working as a coach, and on the weekends, I am doing something for EHF. I am building my career right now because I am not ready to be the head coach yet, so I am giving myself some time to see where it takes me. And I am still trying to find out who will Anja be after her career. I am looking forward to see what will happen and where I’ll be in the future. Everything is possible.
After all this talk about your successes, achievements, etc., can you tell us, why do you love handball?
Handball is my life. I would go this route again and again. I couldn’t and didn’t want to introduce myself to any other sport. It’s the best sport for me. Handball gave and taught me everything you need in life. Discipline, acceptance, how to deal with different people. If you want to achieve something you must work hard. If you fall, you have to get back up. Every day you have to face some new challenge to grow and learn. You are pushed to your limits; you move outside of your comfort zone. YOU WILL FIND SO MANY GREAT FRIENDS, PLAYERS, FRIENDS FOR LIFE. I love handball and couldn’t imagine life without it.
Which advice would you give to all women who have aspirations to work in sports?
Just do it!! You can only win. Even if it gets hard, you will learn and grow from it! And you will win! Because you learn how to handle it and rise after. You will have so many great moments that you will never forget in your life! You will find lifelong friends you can count on. My advice – just do it. Have fun and find out who you are and remember one thing – never be afraid of challenges. The challenges are the fun part.