Even though it’s 2019, there’s still a long road ahead for athletes hoping to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But for the Zambia National Handball Team, also known as the Super Shooters, a new year moves them one step closer to the dream of a lifetime.
Many people would find it hard to believe that a group of dogged young men from the impoverished settlements of Lusaka would have the faintest hope of competing in Tokyo. In Zambia, located in Southern Africa, 40 percent of people live in extreme poverty, and only half of the population can read and write.
But back in 2012, an official at the Japanese Embassy in Zambia, Seiji Tashiro, saw a great deal of potential in the agile boys competing on the country’s only handball field, just a few kilometers outside of the capital. He contacted the Handball Association of Zambia to offer his services as a coach and mentor. That led to the formation of the Zambia Japan Handball Exchange Project.
Musa Kambunda, now 20, saw the sport as more than just a way to stay fit and bond with other athletes. The meager stipend offered to the players also helped bring food into his parents’ home. And that small gesture unlocked a bigger vision: perhaps winning at handball could help him win at life.
When documentary filmmaker Austin Meyer spent time with the team early last year, their determination reminded him of his own athletic journey. It began when Meyer started playing soccer at age four, and lasted throughout his years playing center-midfield for Stanford University’s team.
Meyer says their focus and energy were “intoxicating.” “A lot of them had such high aspirations for what handball could mean for their futures. The question I hoped the video would pose is how realistic was that? I had a similar experience when I was leaving Stanford and trying to become a professional soccer player. You’re constantly asking yourself, ‘Am I just living on a dream, or is this a potential reality?’”
The head of the Handball Association of Zambia, Victor Bwalya-Banda, believes a trip to the 2020 Olympics is within their reach. The newly formed Senior Team, consisting of the first group of players were 14 years old in 2012, have already traveled to Tokyo for training, thanks to support from the Japanese government.
Bwalya-Banda says, “That trip gave them a vision of what is possible. It made them double their efforts every day.” The team placed first in a preliminary Zone Six competition for African countries last June, but the next hurdle to clear is this March, during the qualifiers for regional handball teams. Then comes the All-Africa Qualifiers in Morocco in September. The top four teams from the African continent will then have a chance to compete for a spot in the Tokyo games.
That goal may not be assured for Zambia Super Shooters, but it also isn’t impossible, Bwalya-Banda says.
“We have faith in our abilities. It is not for us to let the dream die.”