Handball phenom under radar

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:21 AM ET

If this was golf, she might be Annika Sorenstam or Michelle Wie. Figure skating? Think Jamie Sale or Michelle Kwan. Hockey? Let's go with Hayley Wickhenheiser.

But Fiona Shannon's sport of choice isn't golf or figure skating or hockey. It's handball, and that's why you wouldn't know Shannon if she bumped into you in an elevator, even though she's one of the top women on the planet at her vocation. She's neither rich nor famous.

Get alongside the 28-year-old mother of two from Belfast, Northern Ireland, on a handball court - where Shannon has spent this week at the 2006 World Handball Championships at the Mayfield Inn - and there is absolutely no mistaking that the eight-time Irish champion and reigning women's world open singles champ is something and someone special.

Even if you don't know the name.

"I always told my dad he got us started in the wrong sport," laughs Shannon, who defeated Winnipeg's Lisa Fraser-Gilmore in the women's four-wall open semifinal yesterday to advance to today's final at the University of Alberta. "You play for the love of the game. I wouldn't change it for the world. You still put as much effort, time and dedication into the game as tennis or golf or hockey. It's what you do."

HARD TO GET RECOGNITION

For Shannon, like other gifted but largely anonymous athletes who compete in handball at an elite level, there's not a lot of public profile or recognition outside of the sport. There's not a lot of endorsements. Not a lot of autograph seekers.

Go ahead, name a men's or women's world champion in the last decade - Shannon doesn't count.

That's part of the gig, says Shannon, who got the better of Fraser-Gilmore to claim the 2003 open women's world title in Dublin, won six straight Irish singles titles from 1995-2000 and partnered with sister, Sibeal McKenna, to win doubles titles in 2000, 2003, 2005 and 2006.

For the world's best handball players, be they from the streets of Belfast like Shannon, or Fraser-Gilmore, who hails from a hockey-mad country like Canada, it's about competing. What a concept.

"I'd be a millionaire," smiles Shannon, asked how her bank account might look if she was a golfer or skater instead of a handball player. "I just love it and I always have. It's everything. Travelling is a big part of it. You get to see the world. It's all good fun."

MEN'S LEAGUE OFFERS CHALLENGE

Shannon, a member of St. Paul's Belfast, and her sister play in a men's league to stay on top of their games. Truth is, there's not many women back home who can test Shannon. Worldwide, there's only a handful of female competitors - Fraser-Gilmore and Anna Christoff of the U.S., to name two - who can hang with her.

"We work out with the men back home," said Shannon, who hails from a family of 11 children and took up the sport 20 years ago.

"Basically, at home there's only me and my sister. There's just the two of us, so we're playing with the guys. We play in the men's leagues. We give them a run for their money."

After losing 21-18 to Fraser-Gilmore in the first game of their match yesterday, Shannon prevailed by taking the second game 21-15 and the tie-breaker 11-1.

SERVE IT UP: Finals in men's and women's singles and doubles will be played at the Van Vliet Centre at the U of A. Women's singles go today at noon, while all other finals are scheduled for Saturday.


Videos

Photos