Alongside all the high-octane competition, the Canadian National Four-Wall Handball Championship feels almost like a family reunion.
The four-day blast of splattered walls kicked off Thursday at the University of Winnipeg, where it will run until Sunday. The names on the draws include some of the sharpest players from across North America -- and the names on everyone's lips include a whole lot of longtime friends.
"It's like a fraternity or a sorority," said Manitoba handball icon Merv Deckert as he prepped to take a handball pal from Florida out to BDI on Thursday. "It's pretty close-knit because we're not a high-profile sport. We just respect everybody who plays the game."
Of all the folks who play the game in Manitoba, few have garnered as much respect as Deckert, 64, and Lisa Fraser-Gilmore, 49. Which is why, at a Winnipeg Convention Centre banquet Saturday, the two one-time world champions will be inducted into the Canadian Handball Association Hall of Fame.
It's not an entirely new experience for either retired athlete, as both are already members of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. But accepting the national induction here at home will be a high point -- and it has its practical benefits, too.
"It saves on travel expenses," quipped Fraser-Gilmore, who announced her retirement in 2010 but took to the court Thursday. "Everybody's coming in. It's great to see the competitors and some people that have retired. They're making it pretty special."
For example: For over 25 years, one of Fraser-Gilmore's toughest rivals was Minnesota handball slinger Anna Engele. After years facing off on the courts, the two are now great friends. Engele is even staying at Fraser-Gilmore's house this weekend. As Deckert said, it's all a big family reunion. "On and off the court are completely separate," Fraser-Gilmore said. "Once you start travelling, you get so much support from other handball players."
Fraser-Gilmore discovered the sport in 1985 while she worked at the downtown YMCA. At first, the relentlessly physical game was a little infuriating, but that's what got her hooked. "I don't know how many times I thought I was going to quit this stupid game," she laughed. "Getting beaten by all the old men over lunch hour at the Y, that was really frustrating. But once you start learning how to play and see yourself improving, you want more and more."
From that addiction, Fraser-Gilmore went on to win 10 Canadian titles, five United States Open titles and her 1994 world victory in Ireland.
Deckert got his start as a student at the University of Manitoba in the early 1970s, where he picked up handball alongside Bisons football players. The game stuck with him, and he went on to capture a world title in 1984 and ever since has been a leader in the Canadian handball world. In 2009, he claimed the world championship again, this time in the "super golden" age category.
Retirement? Not in this sport, apparently. Deckert hit the court Thursday too, as he always plans to do. "I was just in San Francisco at a tournament, and there's a guy there who was 86 and playing," Deckert said. "There's four of them in the court. These old guys were all super fit -- and that's what I'll be doing."
The Canadian national handball tournament continues on Sunday, with games starting at 9 a.m. at Duckworth Centre at the U of W.