Falcon was member of 1996 U.S. Handball Team

Published 3:09 pm Friday, August 6, 2021

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As the Tokyo Olympics are winding down, Pfeiffer University Athletics has shined the black and gold spotlight on Greg Caccia, the only Falcon to have participated in the Olympics for Team USA.

Caccia, a 1990 Pfeiffer graduate, played tennis for the Falcons throughout his time in Misenheimer. From 1987-89 he played at the No. 1 singles position and was also the team MVP during those seasons. He earned all-conference honors in 1988 and in that season, achieved an NAIA ranking of No. 36.

Following his tennis career, he entered graduate school at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. with the goal of becoming a teacher.

While at Adelphi, he began playing handball recreationally and in 1993 he was invited to attend a tryout for the U.S. National Team.

That initial tryout, held in Philadelphia, saw the 26-year-old, 6-foot-5, 240-pound Caccia vie for one of the 16 spots on the team. A total of 50 players from around the country were part of the Olympic tryout process.

Caccia would move to Atlanta during the tryout process, which lasted three years. Over that span, Caccia and the Olympic hopefuls traveled to Europe, where handball is wildly popular, to play games against club teams and other national teams.  The European experience took him to Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden, where the game as it is currently played, developed in the early 19th century.

The training for the Olympics was intense, but also was challenging, as Caccia says the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) did not provide a great deal of funds for the team.

“Swimming, gymnastics, basketball and track and field, those sports get the most attention at the Olympic level and conversely are better funded. We had to basically raise funds for ourselves to be able to take our European training tours,” he said.

The Olympic team roster was named in May of 1996, which Caccia made the cut and was officially a member of Team USA.

The Game

Caccia describes handball as having some characteristics of basketball.

“There’s lots of plays that are developed where you utilize picks, certain movement patterns and passing strategies,” he said. Dribbling is essential, just like basketball, but unlike basketball, a player can take three steps following a dribble before either shooting or passing to a teammate. Caccia remembers most of the time, three dribbles are rarely used before a pass or shot on goal.

“The game is very fast,” he said. “You really have to be in great shape to play handball.  I describe it like playing water polo … minus the water.”

Played on a court slightly larger than basketball court using six position players on each team, in addition to a goalkeeper, handball players are typically the same general athletic build as basketball players.  “I can remember often being matched up with players from Russia and Sweden that were 7-footers,” he said. International handball consists of two 30-minute halves with a 10-minute halftime period. In most games, winning scores range in the mid-to-upper 30s.

“Those European players were so athletic, and their size made the ball, which is about the size of a cantaloupe and has a hard leather exterior, difficult to defend,” he said.

1996 Atlanta Olympics

“The Opening Ceremonies were something that I will never forget,” he said.  “Being there in front of over 100,000 people at Olympic Stadium, our team was actually placed right in front of The Dream Team, so we were able to chat with Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon, among others, prior to the Parade of Nations.”

Caccia also remembers Olajuwon coming to watch some of their practices in the Atlanta area, as he played handball growing up in his native Nigeria.

“(Hakeem) Olajuwon actually gave us some great pointers and advice.”

Caccia laughed as he said, ” I’m not going to turn down any advice from a Hall of Famer.”

Caccia also said at the opening ceremonies, he and his teammates felt pressure.

“Being that we were an automatic qualifier based on the U.S. as the host country, we wanted to prove that we belonged playing against the world’s best.”

In the competition, Caccia and the U.S. team opened the games at the Georgia World Congress Center with a 23-19 loss to Sweden on July 24, 1996. They would also fall to Russia (31-16), Croatia (35-27) and Switzerland (29-20) before closing pool play with a 29-25 win over Kuwait.

A 27-26 extra-time win over Algeria on Aug. 2 concluded play for Team USA, claiming ninth place, which is the highest finish for an American handball team in Olympic competition.

Croatia would win the gold medal over Sweden while Spain defeated France for the bronze medal.

Following competition, Caccia says the closing ceremonies were a huge party.

“We had so much fun that last few days. We got to go and support other American athletes in their competitions. Being a participant in the Olympics is something that I will cherish forever.”

In being a member of the U.S. Olympic team enabled Caccia to visit The White House.

“I got to meet President Clinton at The White House,” he said. “The things that I got to experience because of representing the United States in handball are something that I hold dear to my heart.  I would not exchange those for anything.”

From a a small town on New York’s Long Island, to Misenheimer, to Atlanta and many different locales in between, Pfeiffer graduate Greg Caccia is one of the fortunate ones to have lived the Olympic Dream.

Since participating in the Atlanta Olympics, Caccia stayed in the Atlanta area and works in the medical sales industry. He still plays handball recreationally and is looking forward to the upcoming 25-year reunion of the 1996 U.S. Handball Team.