Once a softball star, WU grad Maggie Mullen now chases Olympic handball
Everyone at Washington University has to deal with LinkedIn at some point. Most students burn hours on the site clicking through potential internships and requesting to connect with people they haven’t seen since high school. Generally, nothing exciting happens on LinkedIn. Unless you’re Maggie Mullen, in which case a post on LinkedIn sent you on a path that just might end with a trip to the 2020 Olympics.
Mullen, who played four years of softball at Wash. U. before graduating in 2014, was working at a marketing firm and perusing LinkedIn for her next career move when she saw a post about open tryouts for the United States national handball program.
“A former client of mine is on the board of directors and he posted about open tryouts,” she said. “I was looking at more conventional, traditional jobs in marketing and the corporate world and decided that an opportunity to be an Olympian was way cooler than that for me in this moment of my life.”
Handball is the rare Olympic sport in which the United States do not excel. It can roughly be thought of as hybrid between basketball and soccer, with players running around an indoor court and trying throw a ball into a goal. It is hugely popular in northern and eastern Europe, but has never really taken off in America. As a result, the national team seeks to develop talent by recruiting athletes who were elite at sports like basketball and softball—people who can already run, catch and throw—and converting them into handball players.
And Mullen certainly was an elite softball player back in her day. Her Wash. U. career at a glance: four all-UAA selections, a career batting average of .404, and 156 RBIs and 160 runs scored, the most in the program’s history.
On top of that, Mullen also picked up competitive CrossFit after college and quickly rose through the rankings, ascending to seventh in the state of Texas and 101st in the nation.
Despite that stellar athletic resume, when she first saw the post for the tryout, Mullen knew next to nothing about handball. “It sounded like fun to me, it sounded like something I would be good at. I watched some videos and that was pretty much my studying for tryouts,” she laughed.
With that research under her belt, Mullen flew out to Auburn, Al., at the beginning of the summer and secured a spot in the national team’s residency program, in which selected athletes stay on campus to practice and learn the game. Mullen said that though the process was frustrating at times, she has also fallen in love with her new sport.
“If I were to invent a sport, this would probably be the sport. Because it’s physically demanding, but you also get to do trick shots against a big goal for like an hour,” she said.
“I’ve caught myself a couple of times at practice getting frustrated because I don’t know the plays yet and I don’t know all the language yet,” she added. “But then I also catch myself smiling just because of the situation. It’s just so fun.”
After years of softball, Mullen said that it can sometimes be difficult to be learning a sport from the beginning again. “I’m not bad at throwing the ball because I’ve played softball my whole life, but I’m bad at running the plays that they do because I’ve never done those,” she said.
Sometimes, though, the simple fact that handball is a more dynamic sport is enough to help Mullen work through the frustrations. “I like the fact that I actually get to run,” she said. “It’s a lot more engaging than softball.”
While she is still learning the sport, Mullen is not a part of the team which travels to games, and was listed as an alternate for the upcoming games against Canada which serve as qualifiers for the Pan American games next summer. That tournament, in turn, serves as the qualifier for the Olympics the summer after. Mullen said that her goal is to break into the travel roster in time to help them qualify for Tokyo.
“The big goal is to be an Olympian. That’s why I joined the sport,” she said. “In order to do that, I obviously have to make a travel roster. So that’s my next goal because I want to be able to go everywhere with the team and actually get a spot. And in between those two would be to get a starting position.”
Even a spot on the roster does not completely guarantee a trip to the Olympics: The USA has not qualified for the Olympics in women’s handball since 1996. However, even though a spot on an Olympic roster is still some ways away and she still has some work to do in order to get completely comfortable on the court, Mullen said that taking time out from the professional world to chase her athletic dreams has been completely worth it.
“I think that following an uncommon path is really what drew me [to handball],” she said. “Because it would be so easy to say that I’m supposed to get a corporate job and make some money and go do that. Despite the fact that I could be successful and support myself doing that, I don’t know that I would be in love with it.”
And regardless of whether or not it ends in a stadium in Tokyo during the summer of 2020, following this uncommon path has become the driving force behind Mullen’s life at the moment and she is loving every second of it.
“It’s not just the Olympic title. It’s like, ‘What are you doing with your life every day and do you love it?’” she said. “And right now, I can say that I absolutely love my life, even though I’m not even on the travel roster. But I’m chasing it and that makes every day fun for me.”