From the Basket to the Beach
How Christine Mansour became a beach handball star
In June, Christine Mansour ’15 stepped onto the sand for Team USA at the beach handball world championships in Greece and noticed Denmark was implementing a punishing full-court press. Recalling her time on the women’s basketball team, Mansour made a backdoor cut, feinting toward the ball, accelerating toward the goal, and receiving a pass in stride. She then leapt, twirled 360 degrees, and heaved the ball into the goal to cut into Denmark’s lead. Acrobatic plays like this might lead one to think that Mansour seamlessly transitioned from basketball to beach handball. Hardly. That goal represented a climactic moment in her improbable, decade-long journey to become one of the best beach handball players in the world.
Mansour arrived at Harvard in 2011 as a basketball recruit but stepped away from the sport to explore other opportunities on campus. While watching indoor handball during the 2012 Olympics, she was drawn to its high-flying goals and fast pace. Played on a closed rectangular court, the sport (not to be confused with American handball, or wallball) blends elements of water polo and basketball, with players dribbling, passing, and attempting to throw a ball into the opponents’ goal.
The problem for Mansour? She needed a place to play. As a sophomore, she joined a handball club in East Cambridge, but by winter, commuting to night practices on her beach cruiser bicycle (which she brought from home in Florida) proved hazardous. She instead created and coached a handball club on campus. The team played on the basketball court at the Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Facility, and Mansour relied on YouTube videos to learn the sport. The shooting motion for handball felt natural because she jumped off one foot, like a layup in basketball. Other elements of the switch proved difficult. On offense, she viewed the basketball court as an “art canvas” where she moved freely to create space. In handball, each team’s seven on-court players stayed mostly in in an area defined by their position (e.g., left back) and tried to control that zone. To Mansour, this “felt limited.” On defense, she had to adjust to a new level of physicality. Defenders were whistled for a foul for making excessive contact with an offensive player in basketball, but in handball, defenders could wrap up an opposing player with both arms to make a defensive stop.
Photograph courtesy of Christine Mansour
After graduation, Mansour moved to San Diego where she had a “visceral reaction” upon discovering beach handball, which is played on a smaller sand court with just four players on each side. The fewer athletes and restrictions on defensive contact provided more freedom to move. For Mansour, this was reminiscent of basketball, and it didn’t hurt that she was playing on beautiful beaches. Best of all, because sand is a forgiving surface, she could freely attempt soaring moves like alley-oops, where a player receives a pass in the air and hurls the ball into the goal before falling. (This is one of several plays, along with spin shots, worth two points instead of one.) Drawing on her leaping and ball-handling ability from basketball and core strength from a new interest in surfing, she could catch the ball, rotate, and whip it toward the net in one flowing motion. “I knew I could go places with this sport,” Mansour recalled thinking.
Photograph courtesy of Christine Mansour
Mansour—who balanced her pursuit of beach handball with running CM Narrative, her video marketing agency—soon made the national team and was the top U.S. scorer at several competitions in 2019. In 2020, when the pandemic hit, she moved to the Netherlands and joined a professional indoor handball team. She hoped to hone her skills against elite competition but found herself in a sticky situation—literally. The Dutch used an adhesive that helps players grip the ball but made throwing feel unnatural to Mansour. She learned to roll the ball off her fingers while navigating a language barrier and assimilating to a higher level of play. The experience reinforced her passion for beach handball, so in summer 2021 she created a Dutch-American team to compete on the European Beach Handball tour. This allowed Mansour and her American teammates to develop new strategies to move the ball and time their cuts to probe gaps in opposing defenses. It also provided an opportunity to reconnect with a former Harvard basketball teammate, Temi Fagbenle ’15, who joined the team for several tournaments. Fagbenle, one of just three Harvard alumnae to play in the Women’s National Basketball Association, recalled being “humbled” by Mansour’s aerial offensive moves and lauded her for combining athleticism with finesse, particularly when it came to her 360-spin shots.
This summer, Mansour is again competing for the Dutch-American team and Team USA and was the top scorer at the world championships. With support from Taylor Weber ’24, a field hockey player who is doing a marketing internship with Mansour this summer, she is also developing a documentary to raise awareness about beach handball and, as Mansour said, share “our story as female athletes." (This follows a controversy last summer when the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms.) It also reflects a deeper purpose that has propelled Mansour to search for compelling stories off the “beaten path.” “That’s what drives me,” Mansour said. “It stems from a curiosity and [being] willing to experience life in a different way than the path that’s more commonly chosen.”
She’s just had to make a few backdoor cuts to achieve her goals.