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Jewish handball star David Fink a high-scorer at 39

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David Fink completed his most successful season in handball this year - and that’s saying something.
by RICH TENORIO | Jul 20, 2017

For one glorious stretch during the World Players of Handball Race 4 Eight tour, Fink held the No 1 ranking. At age 39, he became the oldest-ever athlete to hold a top ranking in any sport as a professional for the first time, according to the WPH.

He finished at No 2 - the latest chapter of an incredible career. A former prodigy in a sport with a history of achievement by fellow Jews, Fink enjoyed a meteoric rise until a devastating finger injury led him to retire for about a decade. In his second act, he’s shown age-defying dominance.

“Most reasons [why] people drop out from a higher echelon are that they get injured, or their skills begin to decline,” said Fred Lewis, a six-time national handball champion and an inductee of both the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the Handball Hall of Fame.

“He’s one of the rare breeds that get better over the years.”

Fink is as connected to handball as his hometown of Pittsburgh is connected to steel.

His father, Rodney, introduced him to the sport at the age of three and his mother, DeDe, was a Pennsylvania State women’s champion in 1981 and 1982.

David Fink explained that his father “has been obsessed with handball since the first time he played the game 47 years ago and he wanted to share his passion for the sport with me. Playing handball was not an option for me, it was a requirement, like breathing.”

Fink’s fourth birthday party was a handball tournament with all his friends. 

Centuries-old roots in Ireland 

Modern handball has centuries-old roots in Ireland, according to the Encyclopaedia of North American Sports History. The sport involves a rubber ball that players hit against a wall with their hands. It was rated first for fitness among all sports by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, said Rodney Fink.

“It’s very popular, historically, in the Jewish community and in JCCs,” he said. “Most of the inducted members of the US Handball Hall of Fame are Jewish [almost half of the 54 inductees, according to his son]. It’s a sport Jewish players have been attracted to and excelled at.”

He listed Vic Hershkowitz in the 1950s, Jimmy Jacobs and Paul Haber in the 1960s, and Lewis in the 1970s.

“I hope to someday fit into that tradition of great Jewish champions,” wrote David Fink, who visited Israel for the first time last year on a trip organised by the Jewish National Fund.

“Currently, I am the only Jewish handball player ranked on the pro tour, so to some extent, I am continuing the tradition of Jewish excellence in handball and I am proud of that.”

He excelled early, winning every junior title from age 11-and-under, to 19-and-under, across three different disciplines of handball: 4-Wall, 3-Wall and 1-Wall, and entered the pros for the first time at age 17, qualifying for a tour in Milwaukee in 1995.

Three years later, he sustained a freak injury playing a different sport, racquetball, when his pinky finger got snagged in a crack in the back door, severing the tip. Thinking he had just jammed it, Fink went in for the next shot before noticing the blood on his shorts. 

At hospital a surgeon reattached the finger 

He credited his father with rushing him to a hospital, where a surgeon reattached his finger. But, he remembered: “The pain was agonising and severe for months and I was not able to hit a handball for several years without tremendous pain because of the nerve damage…

He began to concentrate on golf and tennis, and moved to Florida in his 20s to try to make the PGA tour, recalled Fink, who is also a top-ranked tennis player in Pittsburgh and his current hometown of Tucson.

He played on the mini-tours and a few PGA Monday qualifiers but was never able to break onto the tour.

In 2007, at age 29, Fink returned to handball. Since then, he has spent most of his time ranked among the top eight on the professional tour.

He also works for World Players of Handball (WPH). With executive director David Vincent, he is a lead colour analyst for games on ESPN3. He directs WPH tournaments, and runs all junior WPH programmes across North America.

In an e-mail, Vincent described Fink as one of the fittest players on the tour.

“The conditioning is every day with no days off,” Fink explained. “It’s an everyday way of life.”

“His fitness alone wins games and at 40 years of age, his knowledge and confidence puts him in the top three biggest threats our game currently has,” noted Vincent.

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