Picture by GETTY IMAGES

Top seven things to know Mathias Gidsel: Denmark's Olympic handball hero who overcame mental health issues

Danish Tokyo 2020 Olympic handball MVP Mathias Gidsel was brave enough to seek help for mental troubles, and got his reward in Japan. More on that and some other interesting facts about Denmark's handball superstar below!
By Ken Browne

Matthias Gidsel made his debut for Denmark's handball team just eight months before the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, but by the end of the tournament he was an Olympic silver medallist, tournament Most Valuable Player, world champion, and second-top scorer behind Mikkel Hansen.

Gidsel's white-knuckle ride to the top of his sport hasn't been without its lows though. He opened up about his mental problems after a thrilling Egypt 2021 world champs, just a couple of months before the Tokyo Olympics.

"I reached a point where I could not mentally go on anymore," he told Denmark's Jyllands-Posten two months before Tokyo, eventually seeking professional help.

After exploding onto the world handball scene, suddenly everyone wanted a piece of the 21-year-old, and it all got too much.

“No one should feel sorry for me because I had the coolest month of my life and it opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me," he continued to JP. "I just want to strike a blow so that you never have to be afraid to seek help."

Two months later, Gidsel was back to his brilliant best in Tokyo, scoring 46 goals from his right-back position - second only to left-back Mikkel Hansen's 61 - walking away with the MVP award and a place on the All-Star team.

But this is just the beginning. His new goal is to win more accolades than Hansen.

Below, we take a look at seven interesting facts you need to know about Gidsel, and you can watch the full France-Demark final below.

1. Matthias Gidsel: Where did this kid come from?

Gidsel's turbo-charged rise may seem like it came out of nowhere, but the signs were there.

Born in Skjern, out in the west of Denmark near the North Sea coast, the prolific goal-scorer is a West Jutlander - pure handball country.

The game takes pride of place there and he started young with local club Skjern Håndbold, catching the eye of Danish giants GOG when he was just 15.

He moved across the country to a boarding school in Odense to train and play after school. Away from family, it was a tough time at first but Gidsel was outstanding at both U16 and U18 levels.

After three years in their youth setup, his first professional contract came in 2017, the same year he sparkled for Denmark at the IHF Youth (U19) World Handball Championship in Tblisi, Georgia.

A sleek and skinny wide man, Gidsel was top-scorer in three of five group games, displaying unmatchable movement, brilliant one-on-one skills and ability to conjure shooting chances out of nothing.

His first taste of international joy came when he scored the goal that clinched U19 bronze against Croatia.

2. Debutante Gidsel wows world at Egypt 2021

Soon he was training with his idols like Hansen and Landin in the first team, but the biggest responsibility he had was to warm up the 'keepers before the match.

That soon changed when he was called up for an official international debut, coming off the bench on 7 November 2020 against Finland. It was a reward for all his work on the court, and off it too, bulking up by 40kg in five years to able to compete physically at the top level.

Grabbing his opportunity with both hands, he was named in the January squad for Egypt and made a memorable Worlds debut, scoring 10 against Bahrain.

He'd go on to net 39 goals from 49 shots in Cairo, an incredible 80 percent efficiency, and was named on the All-Star team. Only he and Hansen achieving that honour.

Close to two million people watched on back home making him an overnight Danish handball superstar, but the Jutlander never forgets where he comes from, nor the people who have helped him get there.

Interviewed by the IHF in Egypt he said: “I owe a lot of people my deepest respect, especially the people at my boarding school in Odense who helped me to be the person that I am but also the handball player I am."

3. From world champ high to lowest low

It's not uncommon for athletes to suffer a heavy come-down after a major international success.

Olympic champions often talk of a 'what's next' syndrome, or wondering if they'll ever experience anything like it again, if that's as good as it'll ever get.

For Gidsel it was a thousand things at once: The press, the stress, the expectations, the tens of thousands of new followers on social media, the new level of scrutiny on absolutely everything he did back at GOG.

Things that used to happen automatically, instinctively, on the court simply stopped.

The team's plan used to be 'get it to Gidsel,' now they started passing to him less. Inside he felt like it was all crashing down.

Gidsel decided to show vulnerability and seek help, and bravely talked publicly about it.

He credits another Danish star Thomas Mogensen with convincing him to get help from Denmark's sports psychology team, and also says Mikkel Hansen's help and advice was crucial.

"I am most disappointed that it would take two months before I admitted that I had a problem," he tells JP, "maybe because I was too selfish, maybe because it was a defeat to seek help."

Team Denmark celebrate after winning their semi-final against Spain at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Picture by GETTY IMAGES

4. Recovery and rediscovering his love for handball

Gidsel got the help he needed, and the turnaround was remarkable.

“I feel like I'm back," he told Jyllands Posten in May, "I can only recommend all other young elite athletes to talk to professionals about their problems. It has developed me a lot in a very short time.

"Previously, I only had goals for my future, my game, and my physique. Now I have the mental part, and it is a completely new arena that I can develop in."

Handball makes me happy - Gidsel

His joy for the game returned and his club form was back too, handball is Gidsel's happy place and he rediscovered why.

“Handball makes me feel so happy and I think it’s the best sport in the world, so I think all should play handball,” he told the IHF in January.

“It has so much speed, so much creativity and that’s what I like and that’s what I do."

5. Matthias Gidsel: Tokyo 2020 Olympic MVP

Speed and creativity are two words you can use for Gidsel's performance in Tokyo. Astonishing and electrifying are two more.

Denmark's 22-year-old wide man put on a shooting clinic scoring 46 goals from 57 shots, an 81 percent efficiency rating.

Despite Gidsel's performance and another Olympic exhibition from Hansen, 'Handball Masters' double gold medal bid ended in silver.

France's bone-crunching defence, powered by Nikola Karabatic and France's generation now, managed to stifle Gidsel in the first half and edge out an epic final.

"Ten minutes after the final we are disappointed that this is not a gold medal," Gidsel said.

"That's what we dreamed of. But tomorrow I think I'm going to be proud of the team. We came with a big fat cross on our backs as the team that everybody wanted to beat and still played in the final."

"A lot of the guys who were on the court today I`ve always looked up to. Today they're a little bit older and I'm young but I just think that we've created something unique in this team by reaching two finals within half a year after a long season."

6. Mathias Gidsel's mistake in the final

Maybe the biggest marker of Gidsel's mental maturity and the huge progress he made in the first half of 2021 was a mistake he made in the last few seconds of the final.

With the match on a knife-edge, France leading 24-23 with seconds left on the clock and the ball in Gidsel's hands, a single goal for the Danes would send the final into extra-time.

The Danish prodigy tried an ambitious pass that didn't come off, France regained possession, scored at the other end, and that was that, a 25-23 victory worth pure gold for France.

Asked if he felt guilty about the mistake, Gidsel told Denmark's TV2: " I'm more proud I took responsibility. I could easily have played the ball on to Mikkel and said, "Here, you do it."

"He saved our ass so many other times." - Danish national team coach Nikolaj Jacobsen

Hansen was right behind his younger teammate too.

"It is never easy to be the one to make the decision in the end. He has played a fantastic tournament - both here and for the World Cup. He has taken us all by storm."

Coach Nikolaj Jacobsen echoed that sentiment:

"Mathias does not have to be picked up. He has played a fantastic tournament. He has played excellently. That he then makes a mistake in the end... He saved our ass so many other times."

7. The future: Füchse Berlin and Paris 2024

If you look at Gidsel's Tokyo 2020 official profile, under 'ambitions' it says: To compete at the Tokyo Olympic Games and to play in the Handball-Bundesliga in Germany.

Those goals came from an interview he did in January, and by the end of summer he had won Olympic silver and announced that he'd signed for top Bundesliga side Füchse Berlin.

Not forgetting the people who helped him achieve his dreams, Gidsel stipulated that he wanted to stay at GOG until the end of the season, joining up with the German outfit in 2022.

He'll have trophies on his mind at GOG in his farewell year, and in Germany: the Handball Bundesliga, the Champions League, and there’s so much more to be done with Denmark too.

The 2022 Euros in Hungary/Slovakia, a shot at Denmark's World Championship threepeat at Poland/Sweden 2023, and of course, Paris 2024.

He was already thinking about Olympic gold right after the loss to France in the final, telling Denmark's TV2: "I hope it is motivation for all of us next time for the Olympics, which fortunately is in three years."

Gidsel says he wants to win more than Mikkel Hansen, and who's going to stop him?