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Some say she retired too early, but Katalin Pálinger was usually one move ahead of everybody. This is one of the reasons she was among the best goalkeepers during her career and especially in the early 2000s.

Her collection includes medals in many different colours, including the rare combination of Olympic, world and EHF Champions League silvers. Pálinger was, is and always will be a winner.

THIS IS ME: KATALIN PÁLINGER

It was love at first sight with handball, but I did not really have any chance, to be honest. However, as two great handball coaches, Kálmán Róth and Miklós Takács started to work with me at primary school, I got the best basic grounding and there was no going back. Even though I was a talented swimmer and the swimming coaches begged me to choose the pool, I was already beating boys my age.

I still remember that once I was walking down the hall with one of my friends when coach Takács asked us “what are you going to do in the afternoon?”. As it quickly came to light, we had nothing going on, so we were told to meet on the court with PE clothes and shoes.

Back then, we played with a furry ball and saliva instead of wax, on the concrete or slag handball court. We were jumping as part of training with a huge iron bar. I really experienced everything from the old times. Today, as sport science has developed a lot, these things are unimaginable, though I do not regret doing any of these activities because they introduced handball to me in a way that made me fall in love with it.

At the end of primary school when we played in the final of the domestic student Olympics it was more or less the same for me as a EURO final or world championship final. I became a handball fanatic. Next to studying, I spent most of my time with handball although I did not realise that it could be my profession. I did not care whether it was raining or I was ill, all I wanted to do was play handball.

Although I was pretty skilful with the ball in my hands and my shooting was good too, I became a goalkeeper after the very first time I tried out between the posts. Later, they wanted me to play in other positions, but Attila Vanyus, who is the ‘father’ and honorary president of Györi Audi ETO KC, said that I was “finally a good goalkeeper prospect”, so the question never ever came up again.

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From then, everything happened so fast as coach Róth was asked to be the new head coach of Györ. At the age of 16, I debuted in the Hungarian first league and only two years later, I became a squad member in the national team which was another huge step in my career. During that time I realised this is not only a hobby, but a job. In my opinion, it is one of the best things when you do what you love.

Luck and the perfect alignment of the stars were usually with me. At the EHF EURO 1998, where Hungary finished as bronze medallists, I had a huge role after my mate Andrea Farkas unfortunately broke one of her fingers. After that, everybody looked down at our line and it gave me power as nobody thought of us as favourites. Following my performance, the international media started to pay attention to me.

I did enjoy stressful and defining moments in my career, and always prepared only for the very next battle. I did this alongside one of my best friends and long-time teammate, Krisztina Pigniczki, with whom I still work for the national team. We experienced and understood everything together.

She is just as humble as me. We have changed a lot since then, but circumstances helped define us as players. A professional not only needs to learn to handle failure but success too. Many do not figure it out.

This is my mind-set. Hard work always pays off, though I was not a huge fan of training but I believed in effort. After a defeat, the only solution is to practise even harder and do everything my body bears or even more.

Moreover, a triumph meant a certain level that I had to keep and sometimes I put the bar so high up, it seemed impossible to ever reach it again. This thinking helped me a lot both in my career and in my personal life to reach my goals and make my dreams true. Handball shaped me into the person I am today.

I always believed in my instincts and tried to dominate my opponents. Once, I was told how to stop shots from the wing, but that way did not work for me.

I relied on my experience and sense of rhythm as well as my instinct and usually that helped me even though I also had to fight my ego. I had to understand that I cannot save every shot, but I could guide the shooter to my favoured side of the net. When that happened, I knew I could stop her.

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My technique was different and with enough routine I could force my will onto the attacker. But there are of course those talents who just cannot be stopped.

Anita Görbicz was one of them; the most talented person I played with and against. We always had huge battles but she surprised me even close to the end of my career, especially with her unique hip shots. Most goalkeepers will expect the ball from such a shot to arrive close to the floor, but there was a twist. Her hip shots went up to the bar: unpredictable, powerful and quick moves.

But she was one of my best teammates ever. We helped each other both mentally and emotionally. She was born as a perfect handball player; you cannot learn what she knew with a handball in her hands.

People often say in any sport that goalkeepers are wired differently. I was told a few times that I am not the same, but to be honest, I am just as crazy as anyone else between the posts. I enjoyed facing shots only from a few metres and although many asked whether I feared the ball or not, naturally I did not keep my eyes open when a ball approached me. It is impossible anyway, just like sneezing with wide open eyes.

Yet I was different on the court than in real life. My personality was bigger and louder when I was wearing a jersey.

This might be the reason, as well as my performances, why the girls chose me unanimously to be team captain in the national squad. The responsibility that I carried felt like a sweet burden.

As a goalkeeper I had to move on quickly because the next shot may come at any second. That’s why games or tournaments do not haunt me.

Yet, the penalty after the final whistle from the world championship in 2003 is still in my head, and when I think about that moment, with the experience I now have, I am sure I could have saved it.

However, from this final, this is not the first memory that comes to mind. Instead it is the atmosphere as 10,000 Hungarian fans inside the arena and another 3,000 screamed and cheered for us in Zagreb, Croatia. In 2004, we should have won the Olympic Games in Athens, but I can let that go too.

I also have fond memories from the EHF Champions League. In the old venue in Györ, the Magvassy Mihály Sports Hall, we played against Hypo Niederösterreich in 2009 for a place in the final under the old system. After they won the first leg by one goal, an unbelievable atmosphere welcomed us and we triumphed in a 29:21 win. Everything was just perfect.

In Györ, fans know handball and are crazy about it. Both the new and the old arena have great acoustics and give the home team an extra boost to help beat their opponents.

I am not an athlete anymore, although I am still involved in handball. I am a mother of two which was a conscious decision. At the age of 34 I knew that a new chapter awaited me.

Although I have different dreams now, as vice-president of the Hungarian Handball Federation, I am still doing what I always loved. Fighting for a better national team for my country and for me and working for my country’s victories means everything in my career.

Katalin Pálinger

November 2022