15 years old, 2m tall: Tristan Morawski and the exciting future of USA handball
At 15, he already has big ambitions to match his 2 metre tall (6'6") frame.
Recently signed up to play with top German handball academy Flensburg-Handewitt, Morawski is part of a program that aims to create a world-beating USA handball team.
The idea is simple: If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, and coming through the same talent academies as the future European elite gives Tristan and other USA kids the same shot at greatness.
"I want to be the best," says Morawski, "to play in the Olympics, win gold, and be MVP."
Ambitious aims that chime with those of USA Team Handball, "the goal of our teams in the LA 2028 Olympics is to be highly competitive and in the mix for attaining medals," USATH's Barry Siff says.
The future of USA handball
One of longtime stars of the USA men's team, Gary 'Hangtime' Hines says that handball is "the top three sports in the States combined in one."
The athleticism of basketball, the physicality of football, and the speed of a baseball pitch. So why, if it's a combination of sports that the U.S. is so good at, has the country's men's or women's teams not had a single podium finish?
Tristan Morawski is part of those plans.
Born in New York to Polish parents, he learned to love handball from young age, "I fell in love with the sport because it had, I really don't know how to explain it, it just had this kind of energy, it just pulled me into it."
His favourite part of the game? Easy, "Scoring goals!" He laughs. "There's a lot I love about handball, the team play... the tricks, the thing that just fascinates me the most in handball is that co-operation between every player."
Tristan looks up to the USA juniors who he has played with, like "Sebastian Wheeler, Amir Seifert, Brody White," but also knows the biggest names in the game, "(Mikkel) Hansen, he's the best." At the last Olympics, "it was beautiful," he says.
And Nikola Karabatic? "Oh wow, he is also a very skilled player"
Tristan's father Tomasz Morawski is also a huge influence on his son.
Tomasz played for Poland’s national team and a number of pro clubs, including EHF Champions League side KS PGE Vive Kielce and the New York City Team Handball Club.
"I wouldn't be where I am without my dad," says Tristan, who knows that handball runs deep in the family's DNA.
"I want to continue the legacy that my dad has made for us... His mom played, he played, his sister played, and now I'm playing, hopefully my kids will play handball too!"
Tomasz, meanwhile, is proud of his teenage son who has his first pro contract at 15.
"I'm already so happy for him, it's amazing, when you see how he's growing and how he's developing, it's gonna be amazing."
According to dad, Tristan's greatest assets are his left arm, his height, his strength, he's a quick learner, a leader, and there's even better news for Team USA handball fans: He has a brother!
Kailan Morawski is only 13, but he's already almost as tall as his brother, and is also a promising handball player.
"I'm not going to push him," says Tomasz, "but I think he'll get there and follow Tristan, they're really close in their brotherhood."
Tristan is just as excited about the idea of playing with his little bro, but what would it be like for this proud father to see both of his sons on an Olympic podium together one day?
"Goosebumps," he says, "We're gonna cry like... I'm not going to find any words which would describe the feeling I would have with my wife and whole family."
Team USA handball goals
But it takes more than two brothers to build a handball team.
Barry Siff, former CEO who still works with USATH, tells Olympic Channel how Tristan's opportunity came about:
"Forum Club Handball (FCH) is an organization of 50 of the top handball clubs in Europe. I had the opportunity to attend their annual meeting last year in Cologne, Germany during the “Final Four.”
"A commitment was made by FCH to assist the USA by welcoming primarily young, talented players to some of their clubs in a developmental type role. This includes a contract and a salary. To date, we have roughly 10 athletes and one coach taking advantage of this, giving these USATH personnel invaluable experience."
He says two of the most exciting male players coming up are Tristan and Luke Bolte.
"Luke Bolte, 18 years old, virtually came out of nowhere. After just a few months of playing at The Ohio State University, he had an opportunity to be seen by our Head Coach, Robert Hedin, while playing in a Juniors tournament in Germany in January, 2020. He is a natural talent, very well sized at 6’5” [1.95m] and 230 pounds [104kg], and looks to play the key pivot position."
Reinforcing the long-term aim of FCH, USATH is getting active in youth development back home and have a plan to make college handball a big deal, a bit like basketball and the NCAA.
"Short-term," says Siff, "plans are being made for some high profile tryouts in Los Angeles and New York City to attract “talent transfer” athletes - elite achievers in one or more sports who could transfer those skills and their competitiveness to handball."
The goal that changed it all
Tomasz Morawski says that the moment that changed Tristan and "turned him into a professional handball player" came in 2019 when he scored his first goal for Team USA.
It came against Luxembourg, where at 14, Tristan was by far the youngest member on the U-19 team, head coach Robert Hedin giving him the opportunity to train and get a taste of international play.
"You should have seen his energy and excitement after that goal when he came home," says Tomasz, "it changed him."
That goal was also part of the plan, giving young players a chance to shine and be inspired in the younger development teams.
Looking at the big events coming up, Barry Siff outlines that the plan was to contend for qualification to Paris 2024, but "the pandemic has put a “hold” on one of the most important parts of that plan - our national tryouts for talent transfer athletes."
"This has now delayed their ability to learn the nuances of the game and to ultimately contribute to the teams’ success in 2023-24," he says, but they're not losing faith, "with the contribution of the FCH efforts, plus some other new plans for “quicker development,” the “Road to Paris” is not closed yet."
LA 2028 remains the biggest aim, the perfect opportunity to showcase the sport at a home Olympics in the USA, and success could see handball explode in popularity.
A little bit like basketball did after the appearance of a certain Michael Jordan.
"USA Team Handball is already marketing handball in America, it's already showing American people what handball is," says Tristan Morawski, "I think we might just need some time and it's gonna come, just like basketball - it wasn't that popular at first but now it's one of the most popular sports in America."
And young exciting players like Tristan can help bring handball to a wider audience, "exactly," he says, "that is my goal."
For now Tristan is focused on the present, training every day using the home goal the family bought at the beginning of a coronavirus lockdown, waiting to bring all that energy and enthusiasm to the sport.
"I'm very very excited for Flensburg, I just can't wait... I actually can't express it with my words to be honest."