Jukes handed Games place

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AS WE continue our countdown to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which are now five weeks away, sports editor DEREK BISH found out how a former hockey player will be representing her country at handball this summer.

THE ambition may have remained the same, but the venue will be entirely different for former Harleston Magpie Louise Jukes when she lines up for Team GB at the London 2012 Games.

Jukes played hockey at Weybread for a number of years, earning England Under-18 honours, but instead of competing with her hockey stick at the Olympic Park’s Riverback Arena she will be going for gold in handball just a few hundred yards away at the Copper Box.

It is a remarkable transition for Jukes, who has spent the last five years training intensely for the Olympics, but one she was worried she might never complete when struck down by injury earlier this year.

“I was so relieved because I didn’t think I had made the team,” said Ipswich-based Jukes. “I’ve had a tough year with the team, so when I got called into a meeting and told I had been picked I was just so overwhelmed that I broke down in tears.”

Jukes has only been back from injury for two months having suffered the back problem in January, but in that short time she showed why Team GB should trust her with going for gold in handball for the first time in their history.

“I’m glad I’ve proved I’m good enough to make the team,” she added.

Although handball first appeared at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, it has only been a regular fixture at the Games since Munich 1972, with London 2012 marking Team GB’s first appearance in the men’s and women’s team events.

Handball is a team sport featuring seven players on each side, with the aim of throwing it into the opposition’s goal during two 30-minute periods.

But Britain’s and Jukes’ first chance to shine at the Olympic Games is no coincidence thanks to Sporting Giants, a world class performance programme launched in 2007 and fronted by five-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave that searches for future stars who may have been lost to other sports.

Although Jukes did not reach the minimum height requirement — Sporting Giants looks for men who are at least 6ft 3in tall and women who are at least 5ft 11in — it was her past experience in hockey that persuaded selectors to take a chance on her.

“I have always wanted to be part of the Olympics and it turned out I love playing the sport and had the attributes to make a good handball player,” said Jukes, who answered her country’s call through a Sporting Giants advert. “Since being picked it has been a whirlwind.”

The 28-year-old primarily defensive player moved to Denmark and Norway for high quality training over the next four years before returning to Great Britain in the countdown to the Olympics.

Although a complete novice to handball when she started out, Jukes quickly found many similarities with hockey.

“Handball is such a great sport and I hope the British public will warm to it,” she said. “I hadn’t heard of it until five years ago and now absolutely love it.

“There are quite similar skills because it is a team sport and good hand-eye coordination is obviously needed.

“Also, when you are defending, the positioning is quite similar to hockey — I wouldn’t be where I am if I had not played hockey at such a high level.”

While still harbouring ambitions of playing hockey at the Olympics, Jukes played with the likes of current Magpies star Emma Lee-Smith in the England Hockey League Premier Division when at Harleston between the ages of 16 and 21.

She also had a spell at Essex club Old Loughtonians, but gave up the sport in 2007 to make the move into handball. Speaking at a kitting out session in Loughborough last week, Jukes added: “It’s hard to describe what it feels like to put the kit on, but I have been looking at it and thinking, ‘yeah, that’s me now’.”

With national funding for handball non-existence, Jukes is also thankful to Suffolk Sport for allowing her to fulfil her Olympic dreams.

“Without help from them I wouldn’t be on this journey,” she said.”