Denmark’s women’s handball team reigned supreme for the decade straddling the turn of the millennium, winning Olympic gold in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Katrine Fruelund was at the heart of the latter two teams – and battled confidence issues to become one of her country’s greatest ever Olympians.
Ask many Olympians how they got to the top, and the answer – as well as natural talent – often involves talk about mental strength. Cast-iron assurance beams out of athletes as we watch them in action. But for others, self-belief is altogether absent. Just ask Katrine Fruelund, one of the most successful handball players of all time.
Not only did she almost never start in the game (“I was so nervous when I went to play at age eight, they had to carry me into the arena”), she also spent many years plagued with doubts about her ability, even as acclaim and gold medals rained down on her.
Fruelund, now 42, was a key part of the Denmark side that won remarkable back-to-back Olympic titles at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004.
“It was tough. I didn’t think I was good enough to play on the team, and I was always worrying what the crowd thought of me. ‘What if I don’t play as well as they want me to?’ So when I was told I’d be part of the team for Sydney, I was very happy because I didn’t think it would happen. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough.”
Fruelund and her team-mates disproved any doubts in style, with Denmark retaining the title they had won at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996. In a tournament where any number of equally matched sides could have prevailed, they navigated a series of highly tense clashes, overcoming both France and the Republic of Korea by just two goals in the knockout stages.
“It was a dream come true, going to the Olympics,” Fruelund said. “It was my hobby, so to be doing it was crazy. I was very humbled to be playing alongside some of the great stars of the day. I was very young, so going to Sydney was one huge party, with lots of joy, happiness and excitement. But when you’re young, there is so much to worry about too. ‘Where do I get food? Where do I wash my clothes?’ You can get stressed.
“The Games also didn’t start well. We lost our first match to Norway, which is always bad. We are big rivals and we knew a lot of the Norwegian girls. You are desperate to get a good start. But in that tournament we played a little better with each match.”
The dynamite Danes were helped along by some stunning individual performances and the correct tactics in the final. “We had very good individual players who could just make a real difference during a difficult game. You need specialists who can make some moments.
“A lot of teams could win, and at the Olympics the games can be so close; there is always a knife to your throat. You have to fight. It was hard for me in Sydney. But the older players were great, and they really encouraged the young ones.
“The final against Hungary was crazy. I think their coach made a mistake because he took off some players to give them a break, and it let us score a lot of points quickly. Handball can change fast, and we smelled the chance to win. Our players stepped up.”
Fruelund found herself become an overnight hero back home. “It’s such a high on the podium, and you’re proud because it’s a family – your team-mates, your trainers, your country. Back in Denmark we got so much attention. It was also good for handball in Denmark. The young players in the country could see that this could be a reality if you try really hard.”
The cold hard currency of Olympic gold also improved Fruelund’s fragile confidence. “I had used a sports psychologist to help me get over the negative thoughts,” she said. “I realised I always wanted to be 100 per cent, and they helped me see that this is something that’s impossible. Nobody in the world can do that. It helped a lot.
“As I got older, I also settled down a little bit. My mind was more developed. You learn a lot about what buttons you need to press to get to a higher level. If you are thinking, ‘Today is going to be hard’, you learn how to overcome this. And you don’t take other people’s comments so seriously. ”
In the past, what was said in the changing room affected me. As I was older, I thought, ‘This is OK’.Katrine Fruelund
As Athens 2004 approached, however, could Denmark establish a Dream Team-style dynasty, winning their third, and Fruelund’s second, straight title? They could. In fact, despite another early setback, the Danes cruised to the final, beating China and Ukraine with ease. The final, against Rep. Korea, was a different matter, however.
“We were an experienced side. We had a great keeper and individuals who could do a lot of different things, so we were good,” Fruelund said. “But that final was so tough. The Koreans were very interesting to play against. They have a completely different style of handball. They were very clever and very technical. We weren’t used to it. But it was cool, a real challenge. We were ready. And I was more calm. I’d played a lot.”
Fruelund is now the mother of three young children, and has worked in local administration and the environmental sector. But she remains a keen follower of her sport, and of the Olympic Games. “I love the teamwork, and the ups and down of handball,” she said.
“You win and lose as a group and always have a real bond. And the Olympic spirit is real and unique. You are part of a family, from all over the world and your own country. Walking around the [Olympic] Village is just wonderful. I loved it all. I was blown away.”
When might we next see Danish Olympic champions, then? Fruelund believes it can happen next year in Tokyo – but it is more likely to be the men’s side, who are currently world champions, than the women. “The women’s team has faded a bit – there is talent but maybe a lack of great individuals,” she said. “But the men have an amazing number of very good players. It is unique. They play for fun and do a lot of tricks. It really is a very special team.”