Hilton has the world in her hands

Helps Canada qualify for team handball championship

When Emily Hilton moved to Kamloops from Sweden five years ago, she never imagined that she'd end up leading Canada to the world team handball championship.

To be honest, she didn't know if she would even be able to play the sport.

"Coming here, I was practising with my dad, my family, some friends - eight people in a gym," Hilton says. "I did not envision anything like this happening. It's gone better than I could have ever imagined."

Hilton spent the weekend relaxing at home after helping Canada's under-21 women's handball team to an IHF Continental Challenge victory in Guatemala earlier this month. The tournament, featuring the best Tier 2 national teams from the Americas, served as a qualifier for the world championship, to be held later this fall at a yet-to-be-determined location.

Canada, it should be pointed out, isn't exactly a powerhouse in team handball. In fact, if you were to tell someone you were playing the sport, most would envision a racket sport.

"It was a big change - you'd say you play handball, they'd think of a game similar to squash," Hilton says. "I really had to explain it . . . and some students had played it in high school. But the high school handball is a lot different from real handball."

Hilton isn't your typical Canadian.

Now 19, she and her family moved to Kamloops in 2008, when she was 14. Although Emily was born in Victoria, she had spent most of her childhood in Sweden.

Handball is big in Sweden - not as big as hockey is in Canada, she says, but similar to how basketball or soccer are considered here. The Olympic sport - it has been called the second most popular team sport in the world, behind soccer - features teams playing a game similar to water polo on a court with a ball and large nets.

Of course, if the sport is popular around the world, it barely registers in Canada. That's why Hilton's father, Peter, started Kamloops Team Handball after the family arrived.

"When we moved here, Emily was 14 years old and, quite frankly, a very good handball player," Peter says. "We thought that she would really miss handball.

"When we came here, we found that there was a club in Vancouver, and Emily practised with it once. . . . We met a girl here from the Netherlands, who was a really good player, and me, Emily and this girl decided to start the club."

The club, despite its humble beginnings, has had about 30 members consistently throughout its time in Kamloops, for a total of about 300 overall, Peter says.

Emily turned out to be one of the club's top players - she also was a recruiter - along with playing soccer and basketball and Sa-Hali secondary.

In May 2010, she competed with Team B.C. at the Canadian women's championship in Edmonton, winning bronze - it was the province's first medal at the tournament since 1986. She turned some heads there, and was invited to try out for the national under-21 team in the fall of 2011.

"I decided to go down, give it a shot and I guess it went well," Hilton says.

You can't keep a good player down - Hilton was the only B.C. player named to the team. In fact, she was the only non-Quebec player on the team.

As great an honour as that was, Hilton only speaks "high school French." This presented a bit of a struggle, especially considering Team Canada's coaches also were from Quebec.

"One of the coaches only spoke French pretty much, but the other coach was bilingual," says Hilton, who wouldn't have had a problem if the coach spoke Swedish, a language she knows well. "Most of the time, I would have the bilingual coach translate word-for-word the pre-game talk, the timeouts, the practices . . .

"I'm happy he was there."

However the message got to Hilton, it was a good message, as Canada went 2-1 in the round-robin, before beating Venezuela by two goals in the championship final, qualifying it for worlds.

Handball, like any team sport, is played differently in different parts of the world. Playing against smaller teams from Central and South America, Hilton was a little shocked by the speed of the opposition.

Fortunately for the Canadians, they had a size advantage.

"We were bigger, but they were quicker," Hilton says. "But it helps to be bigger and stronger. When we played the Nicaraguans and Guatemala, because we were so much bigger, we were able to power through them and they didn't have the strength to control us."

The Guatemala tournament was one of a number of challenge events around the world, all serving as world-championship qualifiers. The world championship will be held in October or November, but a location hasn't been decided.

Hilton will likely have to try out for the Canadian team again in August - she appears to be a safe bet, considering her play as a back in Guatemala - before even getting the chance to go to worlds.

But another of Hilton's impressive talents may keep her out of the world championship.

She is an exceptional student, and was one of 30 students from across Canada to win a Loran scholarship in 2012. The scholarship, worth roughly $80,000 over three years, is based on her maintaining a high grade-point average in her geophysics studies at the University of Calgary.

If the world championship forces her to miss too many classes, she might just stay home.

"I had to move a math exam for this tournament," Hilton says. "We'll see if I make the team (for worlds) first - one thing at a time."

Hilton won't be wanting for fun experiences, even if she can't go to the world event.

She left this week for JÖnkÖping, Sweden, her former hometown, for a summer internship.

"It's on public policy and environmental stuff," she says. "It will be fun."

After five years away from her former home, Hilton is looking forward to seeing some old friends. And, of course, getting back on the handball court with her old club.

"I'm really excited - I'm going to meet my old teammates," she says. "I plan on practising with them . . . I'm really looking forward to it."


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