Most people don’t suddenly become world-class athletes in their early 30s. But Ashburn’s McKenna Smet has the ability, determination and just the right level of good crazy to make it happen.
The Loudoun-based personal trainer tried out for Team USA Handball last month on a whim—and made the team. Just six months after taking up the sport, she’s now part of the women’s national team as they work to earn a spot at world championships in December.
“I didn’t expect it, but it’s all about getting out there and creating awareness and taking risks,” Smet said.
Making Team USA was unexpected but not entirely surprising for the former Division 1 soccer player. Now 32, she has trained at an elite level since her teens while running a successful training and wellness business.
Smet’s handball journey started last year when a Brazilian friend saw her throw a ball and suggested she give the sport a shot. Smet traveled to Brazil in December to work with a coach and get a skills evaluation. After encouraging results, she started looking for places to train in the US. Smet found a Brazilian coach in Florida who suggested she give Team USA tryouts a shot in June, leaving her just a few months to get a crash course in the sport. But Smet’s baseline fitness and hand-eye coordination developed over decades as an athlete gave her an edge.
“You have to keep in mind I have been training as if I was a professional athlete for the last 15 years of my life,” she said. “That’s just who I am.”
Smet drove to Boston for tryouts last month, hoping her overall athleticism would help her get her foot in the door.
“I was nervous, but I was like I just have to do it to get it off my chest,” she said. And Smet found out she had what it takes. She was a surprise star during tryouts, and the women’s team coach pulled her aside and asked if she’d consider playing goalie. It’s a challenging, high-pressure role in a fast-paced sport, but Smet was up to the task.
“I stood in that goal watching the USA starters coming at me full speed, and I just did my best to try to stop everything,” she said. “The coach said I was the only one brave enough and crazy enough to stand in goal. … It takes a certain type of person to do that.”
Smet is embarking on a new sport at an elite level with players who often start in elementary school.
“This is unheard of what I’m doing,” she said. But it doesn’t come entirely out of the blue.
Her fitness level and her ability to train consistently at her business Elite Wellness Performance and Recovery in Ashburn over the past several years has given her an edge ina sport where goalies can continue playing into their 40s.
“The fact that it lets me train and do all of my recovery under one roof has been one of the biggest reasons I was in shape enough to go to this tryout,” she said.
Smet grew up as one of five siblings in Rockville, MD. A multi-sport athlete in high school, she went on to play Division 1 soccer while earning an exercise science degree at Towson University, then earning a master’s in public health from University of Alabama. Smet shifted her focus to triathlons and crossfit after college and decided to make fitness her career. She opened Elite Wellness with business partner, Brazilian volleyball player Josi Pinheiro in 2018.
The business started out with a focus on cryotherapy, a treatment that uses extremely cold temperatures to treat soft tissue damage. Since then, Elite Wellness has branched out into overall fitness and wellness for adults and youth, offering personal training, sports massage and other services in a 3600-square-foot facility in Ashburn. Last year, Smet was named Loudoun’s favorite personal trainer in Loudoun Now’s readers poll.
Smet is now spending her weekends training in Florida and will head to Spain later this month to train with Team USA as the team gears up for the North America and The Caribbean Championship, which take place in near Chicago at the end of August.
The U.S. women’s handball team didn’t qualify for this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, but team members are setting their sights on the world championships in Spain in December with an eye toward a U.S. handball presence at the 2024 or 2028 Olympics.
The sport, which combines elements of soccer, basketball and hockey is enormously popular in Europe and parts of South America but hasn’t really gained a foothold in the U.S., despite having the fast-paced, action-packed style Americans love.
“I think it’s a dream sport for people who have a lot of good hand eye coordination and have certain athletic abilities,” Smet said. “It’s checking all the boxes—people just don’t know about it.”
Team USA includes a number of dual-citizenship players who play professionally in other countries. But Smet says organizers are trying to promote the sport and develop more homegrown players. For now, she’s encouraging Loudouners to check handball competition at the upcoming Olympics and get a sense of the sport.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but they’re saying it’s America’s next great sport,” Smet said. “I really want to try to create more awareness.”
To learn more about Team USA Handball, go to teamusa.org/usa-team-handball.
For more information about Elite Wellness Performance and Recovery, go to elitewellnessperformance.com.