Golden times ahead for Burnley’s Holly Lam-Moores

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THE road to London 2012 hasn’t exactly been paved with gold for Burnley-born handball star Holly Lam-Moores.

Instead of lucrative sponsorship deals, exuberant riches and a horizontal champagne-filled lifestyle, the 21-year-old was forced to tolerate the shackles of an arduous, unpretentious and, at times, unfulfilling regime.

Tucked away in a Norwegian suburb as a fragile teenager, struggling to make ends meet, dreams of competing at the Olympics seemed unrealistic. Battling with the congestive and claustrophobic conditions that Scandinavia’s accommodation had to offer only ambition, grit and perseverance would see her through. And it did.

Not only has the journey shaped the gracious, appreciative and virtuous character she carries with pride today, it’s also led her to the Olympic Village situated in the country’s capital.

“I started at 13,” recalled Holly. “Bill Bailie, the men’s handball assistant coach, had developed a club in Haslingden and he basically went in to the schools in our area, including Alder Grange. I turned up to PE one day not knowing what we were doing and it turned out we were doing handball. I’d never heard of it before and didn’t know what to expect.

“I ended up going to Haslingden Sports Club with a few of my friends, they didn’t like it as much as I did, but I stuck it out. Not long after that were the first England trials - I didn’t make it. I didn’t get picked first time round but the second time I did and it all escalated from there.”

On the back of London’s winning Olympic bid, with British Handball lavished with funding, Holly set off for Denmark, home to one of the best and most established leagues in the world, to join the centre of excellence where the 2012 generation would be shaped. Tradition had rarely favoured handball in the UK and so, along with other minority sports, a team had to be nurtured, developed and raised to Olympic standard from scratch.

“It was in 2005 that we won the Olympic bid,” said Holly. “I was still at school and was told to finish my GCSEs first. I did them and eventually moved to Denmark and I’ve never looked back since.

“Our first game was in 2005 against Luxembourg and we got hammered. The year after that we went to Bosnia and got hammered by the Faroe Islands. I think they scored more than 50 goals against us, it was ridiculous.”

The programme, even with financial backing, was a strenuous, seemingly impossible task. Raising a side to match or at least compete against the world’s elite was an unenviable chore. But the squad’s unity, endurance and indeed their survival instincts were considerably tested when funding was chopped in early 2009.

“I was playing at a Fifth Division club with women that had retired and played for fun so it wasn’t that great,” said Holly. “About six months later I got in to an under 18s team so it was the first time really that I’d played with girls the same age as me.

“I played for six months there and then obviously all our funding got cut. At the time we were living in a school that was paid for along with food and facilities. In January 2009 that all got chopped and they told us that they couldn’t afford for us to be there. We had to figure it out for ourselves.”

Holly added: “Eight of us ended up getting on a boat to Norway with all our stuff. We played for a club who were fighting against relegation and needed some help. A guy at the club moved himself and his family out of a house and let us stay there for a while.

“We had no money but we played as much handball as we could. At the time none of us were good enough to get professional contracts so we had to make do with what we had.

“The Olympics didn’t seem impossible but there was always doubts as to whether we would make it. It was really hard work but if we hadn’t have done it, made those sacrifices, and put in the time and effort then we wouldn’t have had a chance of the Olympics. It’s paid off now because all the people that stuck it out in Norway have been selected. It’s all part of the process.”

Holly’s perseverance paid off not only with her eventual inclusion in Team GB, but on a domestic level. Having left Norwegian Second Division side Asker, Holly moved to the second tier of Denmark with AGS before hitting the big time with Premier Division outfit Sonderjyske, where she signed her first ever professional contract in October 2010.

“In Summer 2010 I got an offer from a Danish club who played in the First Division, the second tier,” she said. “I moved back there, played about three matches for them, and got a call from a Premier League club.

“They asked me if I wanted to sign professional terms with them so in October 2010 I signed my first ever professional contract. They were fighting against relegation so I started at the bottom of the Premiership.

“I played full games, I was their first choice wing player, and was playing in the top league in Denmark, considered to be the most competitive league for women in the world. Unfortunately they went down that year.”

Fortunately, Holly wouldn’t be sucked in to the Danish club’s demise. In the season’s culmination, Britain’s handball hopefuls were assembled in London, a short walk from the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre. And so the nucleus of Team GB’s unsung heroes was formed.

“It worked out well for me because in May 2011 the British team decided to move to London to become centralised to prepare for the Olympics,” beamed Holly. “We went down to Crystal Palace and trained twice a day, six days a week, ever since. We’ve needed the preparation because we know that we won’t be the best team there or the most experienced but we can ensure that we’re the best prepared team.”

There’s no doubt that Holly is evangelical about the sport. She takes on an almost ambassadorial role in her tireless quest to promote handball. She’s rarely had chance to settle, adhere to certain surroundings. Instead her Olympic ambition has seen her experience a peripatetic existence. But Holly has her just reward and will make history alongside her 13 team-mates as Team GB make their debut at the greatest show on earth in both the women’s and men’s handball competitions.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity because I may never compete in another Olympics,” she said. “I want to perform well, as do the others, and do my bit for the team and do the best I can.

“People may think it’s a waste of an investment or a waste at the Olympic Games but we have to start somewhere. We’ve had to start from scratch. Someone has to do the dirty work and that just so happens to be us. I don’t mind doing it because I really want this sport to go far. London 2012 will provide the exposure that handball needs and it’ll get the nation excited.”

Holly added: “Our first aim is to showcase handball and get the nation behind us so to do that we have to perform well. The official target is to get a top eight finish, getting through the group stages and reaching the quarter-final. We want to compete with the top teams and put in a credible display.

“It’s exciting, it’s fast, it’s aggressive, it’s a contact sport. It’s got every aspect of other sports with components of football, rugby, basketball, water polo. There’s over 50 goals a game, you don’t get drab 0-0 draws. It’s just a thrilling sport and it’s end-to-end stuff. Everybody attacks, everybody defends, there’s always something going on.”

The women have been set an initial target of advancing from the group stages, though Holly is determined to leave an indelible legacy. They may not finish among the medals but their intrepid trek, littered with great personal sacrifices, to reach this stage already makes them winners.

Montenegro provide the first test as the team kicks off its Olympic schedule on July 28th in the London 2012 Handball Arena, named the Copper Box. Holly and co then face Russia in Pool A on July 30th, Brazil on August 1st, African champions Angola, who they beat in last year’s test event, on August 3rd, with the final group game against Croatia on August 5th.

“There’s already been an increase in participation in the sport,” Holly smiled. “In 2006 the British national team couldn’t play any games because there wasn’t enough players. But now in November we beat Angola and we’re competing with Russia and Montenegro who are all massive handball nations and have won medals at major events.

“We are capable of springing some surprises. Five years ago the Russians were winning gold medals and we couldn’t even form a team. Putting things in to perspective it’s been a fantastic programme and it’s produced miracles.”

And it keeps getting better for Holly. Once the Games are over she’ll travel immediately to join her new team-mates at Viborg HK. “I’ve signed to the other side of the Danish Elite League and signed for one of the best teams who compete in the Champions League,” she said. “They are the biggest club in Denmark at the moment. In the space of a year I’ve moved from the bottom to the top.

“I’ve spoken with my new coach at Viborg HK and he wants me in training the day after we leave the Olympic Village. My ambition after the Olympics was always to play at a top Danish club and get the chance to play Champions League handball and I’ve realised that dream.

“I always thought I’d have to work hard for another couple of years before getting this chance and hit the jackpot. I just have to grab the opportunity now and play among the crème de la crème. Players from all the top nations are there but if I want to go far and improve in the sport then there’s no better way. I’m honoured they’ve chosen me.”