The snow covered the landscape visible from the windowpane of a moving train from Oslo to Hamar. The -9°C outside temperature were far from the 8°C average we normally have in Buenos Aires during Wintertime. So, what motivated me to go up North in such a cold weather? Well, the story of a 40-year-old Brazilian goalkeeper which was worth telling, and who was surely more accustomed than me to such freezing weathers.
And it’s not that Capinzal, the birth city of Chana Masson, is used to this kind of cold weather. In fact, I’m sure winters in Santa Catarina, Brazil, feel more like spring in Norway. But in the nearly two decades of playing in Europe, Chana must have got used to these temperatures. The four-time Olympian is back in action; after having stopped her career as a professional athlete and giving birth to Julia in February of last year*, the former Odense HC goalkeeper made the decision to go back to the courts and to start over in Scandinavia.
*this interview was made in January of 2019 in Hamar, Norway. Playmaker | Women's Handball was not yet created, although it was on its way to becoming a reality. Over the course of the year, Chana Masson changed clubs and is now competing for the new Russian contender, CSKA.
She was waiting for me on the train platform, wearing a red coat, her glasses and a pair of shoes that were not as non-slip as she thought (“I almost fell on my way here, it’s so slippery!”). “Hey, how are you? How was the trip?”, Chana greeted me with a hug. I told her the weather was a little too cold for me. “Well, I’m getting used to all of this snow, it didn’t snow this much in Denmark!”, she told me as we left to find somewhere warmer to have a chat. The ice that covered the pavement was so slippery that we both walked in slow motion, trying not to fall. It was not the embarrassment of falling that scared us, but the fear of breaking a few bones against the floor.
The warmth of a coffee shop just a few blocks away from the train station felt great, in contrast with the deadly weather outside. We found a table and Chana ordered two lattes at the counter, in what sounded like perfect Danish to me (it sounded perfect to my poorly trained ears). “I speak Danish because I can’t speak Norwegian yet, but it’s very similar, so it’s not so hard to communicate here”, she would tell me. As we sat down, we started chatting and the conversation got so interesting I took out my phone and asked if I could start recording. “Already?”, she asked with a smirk.
Part 1: A new life in Brazil
Before the end of the 2017 season, Chana had decided to stop her career as a handball player. While she still had one more year in her contract with Odense HC, she had already told the club that by her last year she would try to get pregnant. Her wishes (as well as her husband’s) to become a mother came true shortly after her last match as a professional. She had started a treatment with hormones in February, played her last match on May 20th and on June 6th she found out she was pregnant. The day after, along with her husband, she flew to Brazil to start a new life after handball.
“My husband played professional football, so we always thought, ‘we’re going to save money and go back to Brazil’. We were going to have something of our own and have our life there. So, I did not worry about many things. I got pregnant, and I thank God for that because I had to do a treatment for it in Denmark and everything went well, so the planning was good, but when we arrived in Brazil, pregnant, wanting to start a new life…’nossa’, it was very bad. Because I did not know who I was anymore. I was like, ‘who am I now?’, I was always a handball player, a goalkeeper, and suddenly I found myself without an identity. It was very tough. If I did not fall apart it was because I was pregnant, and I was really happy about it.”
Chana established in Florianopolis, 400km away from her family in Capinzal and some 1,100km from her husband’s family in Rio de Janeiro. She got a job in handball, as a coach, but the working conditions were a little rougher than she had expected. “It was a bit of a shock. I knew it was a different level than the one I had just left in Denmark, but I didn’t imagine there would be such a difference. When my daughter Julia was only a month old, I was already training these girls. It was a shock, mainly on the organizational part. They were so used to working with such little that it made me think how much I had had in my career. So, I was training 40 girls with two balls, with no resin, in a 30x20 court that we had to share with the boys; the girls really wanted to improve and to work hard, but I saw Brazilian handball much worse than when I had left 20 years ago.”
Besides struggling with her new job, Chana saw that the couple’s investments were not going the way they would’ve wanted, so after nearly a year of living in her country, something hit her: “I wanted to go back to Europe. My husband did not want to, back then. The last few years that we were in Denmark, he was there because of me, because I was the one who was still playing. He had retired at 34 because he no longer found motivation, so those last few years he was a little lost and he really wanted to go back to Brazil, for him it was better to be in our country, because even if things were difficult there, we had conditions to live well; but it was not the life that I wanted.”
PM: And you were not only thinking for yourself now…
CM: Of course. For me it was like having it all and, all of a sudden...it was not like having nothing at all, but in Brazil, if you don’t have money you don’t have access to a good hospital, to good education. You have the public hospitals and schools of course, but they’re not as good as they’re here in Europe, where we have them for free. So that’s when I spoke with my husband and told him that I really wanted to try and come back. I knew it would be hard, because I had a little girl now and I didn’t know if anyone would sign me, because I would turn 40 this year. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it and especially if there would be any clubs interested. And there were...
Part 2: The comeback
PM: How was the process of coming back and finding a club?
CM: I talked with my manager first and I told him I was thinking of coming back, he said ‘Ok! Let’s find some options!’. At the beginning he was looking for top clubs, because he said that if I was coming back I should aspire to the top level, and trying to earn the same as I was earning when I quit, but we couldn’t find that option. I had offers to go to Romania or Hungary, but I told him my priority was Scandinavia, because of my baby, because I knew the culture of motherhood in these countries, I could no longer think about myself only. Also, I didn’t want to go to just any team, because after having played at the highest level for so many years I didn’t want any less than that. And then I was contacted by Heidi Løke.
PM: And how was that conversation? How did she end up calling you?
CM: Heidi contacted me saying ‘we need a goalkeeper, we want to win the league and it’s the position we need to fulfill the most, come to Norway!’. And I thought that was exactly what I was looking for. Also, besides the fact that it was a team from Scandinavia, I knew the club was very professional, because she wouldn’t be in a club that wasn’t like this.
PM: How much of a challenge was it for you to be back in shape and confident to be a professional athlete again after your pregnancy?
CM: Well, when I thought of coming back to the courts, I was not really thinking for how long I could do it, I just knew that I wanted to be back in Europe to have a better life for my kid. I had put on 18 kilos during my pregnancy, so when I signed with Storhamar I visited a doctor to be back in shape and I managed to do so. I arrived in Hamar in very good shape. The club wanted me to go straight to a tournament they would play in Viborg (Denmark), Generation Handball, and I spoke with them and told them I needed to train with the team at least one or two days. So, I came here and trained two days with the girls. After two trainings we were all in doubt, thinking about how I would do, but then we went to the tournament and I played really well, so I thought, ‘Hey, I can still do this!’.
PM: How are you coping then with this ‘new beginning’ in Europe now?
CM: I came back here because of my daughter and because of the kind of life I wanted to give her. I signed a two-year contract and asked for help to find a job for my husband too, and the club helped me with that, so that we would both have a salary. Then I also looked for something to study, so I’m studying my Management degree on Tourism and Hospitality from the School of Tourism of Seville. I started these studies because they were accessible for me, because they’re online, and because I have lived this in a way, besides being an athlete, I’ve always traveled a lot and experienced lots of things in every trip. I’m really liking it, and so far, I’m being able to handle the studies, handball and the baby.
PM: And after the two-year contract, do you see yourself coming back to Brazil again?
CM: I don’t think I see myself doing it again. The thing is that my husband really wants to go back to Brazil, but he’s also very happy with his job here, so we don’t know what’s going to happen after handball. If I had to go back now, to live, at least I’d know what I would find, I’d know what to do, where to go, I’d go with a different mindset; and most importantly, I’d go back with a profession and a degree.
PM: So, coming back to Europe was a priority for you, but did you ever think of coming back to start over with something else? Or why did you decide to go back to the courts?
CM: I decided to come back because playing handball is all I’ve ever done. I’m really enjoying this come back and I discovered, little by little, that I still had this in me. I love to play, this is not a sacrifice for me, and it was not hard for me to come back. I had decided to stop my career when I had my baby, but I made the decision to play again when I saw that we could not live the way we wanted in Brazil. Maybe if our investments hadn’t gone wrong, I wouldn’t have thought about it, but not only they went wrong, I was also living far from my family; so, we were alone, in Brazil, and things weren’t going the right way. Then I thought, ‘I’d rather be alone in Europe, and playing handball’. I could’ve tried one more year in Brazil, but then I would’ve been 40 and trying to come back to the top would’ve been tougher, so for me it was coming back now or never again, that’s why my husband also agreed with that. I signed that two-year contract and we’ll see what happens next; but it was definitely a ‘now or never’ decision for me. I have to say, though, that I feel the difficulties, physically, I get tired faster than before, it takes longer for me to recover. When I talk to my coach about this, he says I’m old, and yes, I’m old!
PM: What are the hardest things about handball for you nowadays?
CM: The worst part for me on the daily training is the physical part. I’ve always been good at it, and now I’m the last one! (laughs) Here in Norway, everyone’s very fit and fast. It was already fast in Denmark, but here maybe even more, and now I’m the last one, along with the other goalkeeper, and I was not used to that! When we have physical training, I struggle a lot now, it’s a lot of effort for me.
PM: And what about the mental aspect? Was it hard to have that winning mentality back?
CM: Well, we’ve been working with a mental coach, to prepare for the Norwegian Cup Final*, and I had told him I was not satisfied with my performances. He said that everyone was very happy with me, but for me it was not good enough, I told him it was horrible for me to be the last one. He told me that I needed to find myself as the Chana of the present, not the old Chana, which was the one I was looking for. I need to find the 40-year-old Chana, who has a daughter, and I need to know what I can and what I cannot do. So, I’m the last one on the physical tests? Yes, but I can still perform at this level. Still, it’s hard to take it, it’s the worst part for me, to accept that I have limitations. I always thought there were no limits for me, I could always do more and more, and now not anymore. This coach always asks me if I still see myself as a player and I say yes to that. I still have that feeling during the games, I still see myself as a player. If I didn’t feel that, if I didn’t find the motivation, I wouldn’t have been able to come back at all.
*Storhamar lost that final against Vipers Kristiansand 31-25 on December 29th of 2018, in Oslo.
Part 3: The right choice
While Chana was embarking into the unknown, in a new country, with a new team in a new league, for Storhamar it was also a shot in the dark. After all, they were hiring a 39-year-old goalkeeper who was coming back from motherhood and a year of inactivity; and all this as part of an ambitious project to become Norway’s new champions. But Chana’s professionalism was something the Norwegian club could rely on.
“When I decided to come back, my daughter was two months old, and I would go training at 6:30 in the morning because she was sleeping at that time. I really wanted to come back here in a good shape, I did not want to embarrass myself or anyone. They even gave me some time to recover, but I didn’t want it. And on the first training I had, the coach and everyone else were in doubt, thinking maybe, ‘did we do the right thing signing her?’. If after a week of not doing anything you feel a bit lost under the posts, imagine what it’s like after a year! But on the second training I had, it was like this”, says Chana as she snaps her fingers and smiles.
PM: The body has memory, right?
CM: Exactly. I think on the second training the coach already knew he had made a good choice. And when we went to Denmark for this tournament, our first match was against Silkeborg, and it was not very good; but on the second match, against Viborg, we played very well, really. I think there was a high expectation as to how I’d come back, and I knew everyone on that court* so that match was very special for me, because I had to prove whether I could still do it or not. And we played very well. I still remember the first save, it was a shot from Kristina Jørgensen, I grabbed it with both hands and passed the ball to our left wing for the fast break. And I remember thinking ‘this match is mine!’ (laughs). And I think the club also thought that I could still do it.
* Chana played for Viborg between 2013 and 2015.
PM: Is the number on your jersey related in any way to your comeback?
CM: Well, yes. I have always played with the n° 1 on the jersey, but when I arrived it was already taken. Stine (Lidén) has been playing in the club for 10 years, how could I possibly ask for that number? (laughs). I had never played with another number, so I thought, 39 it is, because it’s my comeback age; and then the girls were like ‘will you change it to 40 when you turn 40?’ (laughs), but I stick to it.
PM: What’s the balance you make of this comeback so far, and of the life you’re carrying out now as a mother and student?
CM: I’m really happy, honestly. I’m playing in a country that I really like, that is very much like Denmark, very well organized. When I was in Brazil, even if it was only for a year, I really missed the organization, not only in handball, but in life in general. I used to be only a handball player; now I’m at the highest level in this sport, raising a daughter, studying, which is something I regret not doing earlier in life. Now I know I’m stronger than I ever was.
Three thoughts on Chana
Arne Senstad – Coach of Storhamar Håndball Elite
“I was a little bit surprised, because like the rest of the world, I thought she had retired and had finished playing on this level, but when the chance came to get her to Storhamar, of course I was very happy and satisfied to get her here. We heard through her agent, we were looking for a goalkeeper and talked with a few agents as we usually do and suddenly her name came up and we went all in to make this happen”.
“The most interesting was not the first training or practice, Chana is 40 but she’s still like she’s 20 in our heads in many situations, and one of this is if she thinks she’s good enough or not. She was in good shape physically but she was worried about her handball, tactics, technique, and the first practice maybe was not enough to test her, but then we saw her improve every practice during Summer and we knew we had done a good deal, because we could see that we had a fighter in the team, and we had someone who knew in which level she could be and was not satisfied with, before she got there, and I think she has improved the whole season until now. The experience is very important of course, and she has played in a very high level for many years, so we have reached a new moment in our team in which we can start playing the handball we want to play, knowing that we got more saves in our defense; that was a problem in the past few years but not anymore”.
Heidi Løke - Teammate
“When Alma (Grisovic) got pregnant the club was speaking about a lot of goalkeepers and Arne (Senstad) called me about Chana and I said ‘are you joking me? Does she really want to come back?’, and I said: ‘of course you have to bring her, I will contact her right away’. Because I have played against her a lot of times and I know she’s a top goalkeeper, so I was so happy when I contacted her, it was so positive to bring her”.
“We knew she was coming back from a pregnancy and I know how this takes time, but I think she was in really good shape when she came. She’s a very clever goalkeeper, and a crazy goalkeeper (laughs), and I really like her mentality, she gives a lot of energy to the team and you can always trust her. She’s a fantastic player and an even better person”.
Jan Pytlick – Coach of Odense Håndbold (Chana’s last club before retirement)
“She’s one of the best goalkeepers. I know she’s a little bit old now, but she’s still has a lot of speed and I while I haven’t seen her since her comeback, I know she’s doing good because she’s a winner. Mentally she’s one of the strongest I’ve known, and this is one of the most important things, to have this winner DNA, and she has that. She’s also a leader. (When she was in Odense) She would say many things to the young girls and help them. I think it’s amazing (that she’s back on courts), she should play in Norway instead of Denmark (smiles), but it’s good to see her back. I talked to her about her plans for when she finishes her career for good, I think it would be good that she starts training other goalkeepers, I have a plan and all, so that she can come, but we’ll see...”