Captain Donlin named U.S. Air Force Athlete of the Year

09 Jun. 2020

Captain Donlin named U.S. Air Force Athlete of the Year

He is a national team representative in both beach and indoor handball, as well as being a Captain in the U.S. Air Force – and just a few weeks ago, Andrew ‘Drew’ Donlin was named the 2019 Air Force Male Athlete of the Year. 

The line player is a member of the U.S. Air Force World Class Athlete Program, alongside a small group of athletes in other sports, which allows him to currently focus largely on handball after several years of juggling full-time Air Force duties with the sport. 

For Donlin, the award came as something of a surprise. 

“I was aware of the award but it was definitely a surprise when I got it and definitely a big honour – not something that I was going for necessarily, but definitely nice to be recognised. I think it really was a product of the really unique opportunities I’ve had over the last year and thanks to the help of a lot of people, like coaches and things like that. My handball journey has definitely been more than I could have planned or asked for even, especially in this last year,” says Donlin. 

What has been so special about the past year? Donlin became part of the U.S. Air Force World Class Athletes Program in November 2018, not long after contesting the Beach Handball World Championship in Kazan. He was soon on his way to Germany to join a club alongside some of his USATH teammates. 

Donlin hoped to make the cut for the USA’s Pan American Games team, in Lima, Peru in the summer of 2019. He was named in the team, and also played at the IHF Emerging Nations Championship in Georgia earlier in the year, where the USA placed fifth.

Donlin at the IHF Emerging Nations Championship in Georgia.

It was at the Pan American Games that a big opportunity arose – to join his current club, Spanish side Abanca Ademar Leon. 

“I thought it was a joke at first”

“While we were at the Pan Am Games, Manolo Cadenas, who is my coach at Ademar in Spain, was coaching the Argentinian team. He was interested in a couple of guys in the US team. The one guy he was very interested in already had a contract in Germany so he wasn’t available, but he found out through my coach Robert Heden that I was in this Air Force program,” explains Donlin. 

“We had a conversation the next day, he invited me to come there and a few days later the tournament was over and I was on a plane to Germany to get my stuff cause that’s where I thought I was going back to – but I picked up my stuff and two days later I was in Spain training. Kind of a whirlwind! A unique opportunity.” 

Ademar may be recognisable to many in the handball community outside Spain as a club participating in international competitions such as the EHF Cup (in the 2019/20 season) and the EHF Champions League (in 2018/19). Donlin became the first American to score a goal in the EHF Cup competition with Ademar. Before joining the club, Donlin was aware of the significance of the opportunity. 

“When my coach Robert mentioned it, it was an off day between games and we were in the gym working out. He was like ‘hey we have to have a meeting tomorrow with Manolo’ and he told me about it. I thought it was a joke at first,” remembers Donlin. “The club is this great club – they play EHF Cup, they were in the Champions League the year before.”

Donlin joined Abanca Ademar Leon after the Pan American Games last year. Photo: USATH

World Class Athletes Program begins with handball

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Air Force has extended Donlin’s and other athletes’ participation in the World Class Athletes Program for another season. For Donlin, it is because of his chances for World Championship participation in both indoor and beach handball. The program usually runs for two years, and was designed to allow Air Force members who are on a national team in any sport to pursue their athletic endeavours. 

Coincidentally, the Air Force World Class Athletes Program was first implemented because of a handball player. 

“They actually started this World Class Athletes Program back in the 1990s, before the Atlanta Games,” says Donlin. “Oddly enough actually, the first member of this program was a handball athlete. His name was Dave DeGraaf and he was training and working at the same time, but he realised that he was going to make the roster so the Air Force made this exception. They started this program basically for him, and I think there was another athlete in a different sport in a similar boat at the same time. 

“Our big role is to be representatives of the Air Force, kind of as a recruiting tool in a way – just to showcase the opportunities that the Air Force has and shed a positive light there. I feel like it’s a good deal for all parties, so I’m just trying to be a good representative of the Air Force and then also succeed in sport, play at the highest level and hopefully make the Olympics one day.”

Responsibility for helping future generations

It is not only the Air Force, to which Donlin is extremely grateful for the extensive support, where he feels a sense of responsibility with representation, but in his playing handball abroad: 

“I remember when I got over there, they were like ‘American? They don’t play handball in America. How did you get here?’

“It’s definitely something I think about a lot – not as a chip on my shoulder or anything, but that it’s not just about me. It’s about how it affects the next generation of American players, especially with us hosting the 2028 Olympics – we’re going to have a team there so we have to get these younger guys over here playing with these clubs. So if they have a good impression of what an American player can do to help the club and just their attitude and work ethic, then that’s important.” 

Due to his participation in the World Class Athletes Program, Donlin is able to focus almost completely on handball. He is also undertaking a master’s degree in finance. Before joining the program, Donlin juggled his full-time work in the Air Force with training mornings and evenings. He is not sure exactly what the future will hold in this regard.

Donlin is scheduled to go back to his Air Force career job after next season. Photo: Drew Donlin

“After this next season I’m scheduled to go back to my normal Air Force career job. I’ve thought about it a lot but I don’t really know what my handball future is going to be after that, cause I do owe that commitment to the Air Force, so hopefully I’ll be able to juggle it kind of like I was doing before. The way that the US team is going – we’re getting a lot of guys over to Europe, playing in competitive teams, so we’ll see what that looks like.”

By complete coincidence, Donlin’s club is not far from an Air Force base in Leon, where he has built relationships and intends to continue visiting to learn more about the different perspectives between the US and Spanish Air Forces. When the COVID-19 confinement period began, he was in Spain and therefore subject to the strict lockdown measures. When the domestic season was announced as over in May, he returned to the USA. 

“I think the hardest part for me and I know a lot of my other teammates as well, was not being able to be around the team. We’ve gone from spending every minute of pretty much every day together to all being in our apartments by ourselves, which was really weird. In terms of playing too, it was strange for different reasons. 

“As time went on, reality started setting in – season’s probably not going to happen. Thankfully I really lucked out, cause my next-door neighbour at my apartment complex in Spain is a track coach at the university down the street, so he had a little gym in his garage underneath our building. He and I trained together every day and that was a huge boost for me, because before that I was just working out by myself in my apartment.”

The period also meant Donlin could spend more time on studying and it showed him how to relish the balance between on- and off-court life. 

“I think it was good for a lot of guys too, to realise there is more to life than handball. I know a lot of guys were exploring school or trying to build other skills outside handball for their next career once handball is over. I think it was a good reality check for a lot of us,” says Donlin, who certainly appreciated the chance to gain further perspective, but is nevertheless looking forward to returning to the court.  

“We’re all going to be really excited to get back on the court, whenever that does happen – hopefully soon.”