Red Deer’s Bryndelle MacDougall is defying expectations by playing competitive handball in Europe — and giving her overseas competitors a good run for their money.
The Canadian surprised handball players in Sweden and the U.K. by being so proficient at a modern sport that was developed in Northern Europe. “When I moved to Sweden, people were very confused that I was a Canadian and was playing at such a high level,” she admitted.
While handball is extremely popular across the Nordic countries and England, it’s only an emerging sport in Canada. MacDougall noted has not yet been “carded” to allow Sports Canada to give financial assistance to athletes.
The 24-year-old started out as a competitive speedskater in Red Deer and stumbled onto handball while searching for another physical pursuit in the off-season. She joined the handball team at Notre Dame High School at the “late” age of 15.
“I had only played it before a few times in gym class,” recalled MacDougall — but she soon discovered she had a real affinity for the physical, fast-moving game that requires strategy, as well as endurance.
Handball rules require all hand passing or shooting. The ball can’t touch anyone’s feet except the goal keeper’s and the ball must be dribbled while players move across the court — they can take only up to three steps, for up to three seconds at a time, without dribbling.
As a strong, left-handed player, MacDougall was scouted for Alberta’s handball team in Grade 11. In Grade 12, she moved up to play on Canada’s national team, competing in Iceland, Chili and other countries.
Playing a sport first codified in Denmark, Germany Norway and Sweden in the late 19th century fit with MacDougall’s plans to broaden her opportunities with overseas studies. From 2019 to 2020, she took biology classes at Sweden’s Uppsala University while also playing handball.
That year was a great chance to expand her skills, she recalled — but then the pandemic hit just as handball season was winding down. “We didn’t know what was going on,” she recalled, and because Sweden was handling the pandemic differently there were a lot of differing opinions expressed as to what she should do.
Luckily, a Swedish family was looking out for MacDougall, helping her arrange a last-minute flight back to Canada in June of 2020, when most international flights were being cancelled.
MacDougall moved to London, England earlier this year to study for a Master’s degree in physiotherapy from Brunel University. Having recovered from a knee injury a few years ago, MacDougall became fascinated with how physiotherapy can help people stay active and healthy.
While studying on a sports scholarship program, she plays on two teams — the Brunel Handball Club “for fun,” and on the West London Eagles Premiere League team for more serious action.
When her studies are over, MacDougall plans to move back to Alberta to stay involved with handball, perhaps as a coach of the para-athletes, as wheelchair handball has a strong following.
“I want to promote the sport in North America because it’s so entertaining to watch” and so fun to play, said MacDougall. Like soccer, it’s also accessible to anyone, she added. “Such an incredible sport deserves to be more recognized in North America.”