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EHF Champions League

This is me: Cristina Neagu

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EHF / Adrian Costeiu

New season, new players, new This is me episodes! Our popular series with stars telling their story in their own words is returning – and how! We open with Romanian standout Cristina Neagu, for so many years now one of the brightest shining stars and biggest record breakers of women’s handball. An EHF Champions League winner and four times IHF Player of the Year shares the story of her life, in her own words. 

THIS IS ME: Cristina Georgiana Neagu

I was maybe in the last generation which went outside to play for the whole day. I always found it interesting to be surrounded by other children and enjoying our times out when we were so little.

We did not have a care in the world; we just played, and the time flew by. I remember trying everything: We were jumping all over the place, running, trying different sports, throwing the ball, kicking the ball. Whatever it was, it worked.

Then, when I was in class in a local school in Bucharest, the nr.59 school Dimitrie Sturdza, my first coach, Maria Covaci, came into the class and asked if there are any kids who want to play handball. I was 12 years old and knew nothing about handball. I had never played it before. I had never watched a match.

You see, there are some things that cannot be explained or foreseen. This was the first time I heard about handball – women’s handball was not so popular in Bucharest as it is now – and I just let things flow from that moment on. It also helped that the school and its hall was close to where I lived, basically on the same street.

And from that moment on, since I took the ball in my hands and started shooting, dribbling and running, it was game on! It was the moment when I imprinted the thought in my head that I was going to be the best player in the world, no matter the challenges I would face. And, boy, there were a lot, some of which I did not think I would ever master.

But just an early friendly advice here, from somebody who has been through thick and thin: first, you need to enjoy handball. You need to learn the basics, but, more importantly, to play it, to feel it like a game. Then, because we are all humans, you need to build relationships. This will help you a lot in the future, in your life. Handball will just enhance your social skills; it will make you feel you belong in a collective.

And this is just the beginning, because, remember, I was 12 years old when I started. Now I see children aged five or six take on the sport and enjoy themselves, and I think this is very, very important, because sports are crucial in your development as an adult.

I told myself that if I want to be better and better and follow my dream of being the best – it may sound naïve, but I was just 12-13 years old at the time – I needed to work hard. Work hard, follow your dream, become better. It became like a mantra, but in my particular case it worked very well. Ambition is important, maybe even key. If you like something, if you enjoy something, it is impossible not to master it if you put in the time and the work. It will not be easy, but it will be worth it.

But back to my story, back to my journey here. The development part was interesting, because as you progress in your career, the sports changes. It develops, it becomes more tactical; it is not only shooting that can help you, like at the youth or junior level. Also, the pressure is higher. And the sacrifices bigger.

I was not 18 years old yet when I moved to Brașov, a smaller city than Bucharest, albeit one of the biggest in Romania, to play for Rulmentul. I remember that I went there and for my first friendly tournament outside of Romania, I needed a special paper, a power of attorney for somebody in the team, because I could not leave the country on my own.

It was the first time I left my home and my parents, and it was difficult at times. But what it helped was my mindset – I was going to become a better player, I wanted to be the best in the world, so that was the next logical step in my career: Playing for one of the best teams in Romania.

Sometimes I would take back the train to Bucharest to be back with my parents, and it was a three-hour trip, but it was all worth it. I always tried to visit and be with them because this is what I felt. I did not neglect school, as it was something important for me too, because I wanted to finish high school and take the exams. It helped a lot, even when it was very, very difficult at times with a packed schedule.

But, as I said, there were challenges. And if one is not prepared for them, then it will be very, very difficult to overcome them. It was 2011, and I was on the top of the world. I was the top goal scorer of the EHF EURO 2010 and the best left back of the competition, I had played my first Champions League final with Oltchim and I received the World Player of the Year award.

Yet there was a pain in my throwing shoulder which was impossible to ignore. There was a plethora of visits to surgeons and different examinations, but I eventually went to the United States of America to a clinic where they had seen this type of injury in baseball pitchers. Remember, I was only 21 or 22 years old, with my prime in front of me.

I did not know what to do. There was a hole in my shoulder, a very big hole in my cartilage, and my career could have been over. I opted in for the surgery, as it looked like the only way out and I spent over 20 months outside of the court. I was informed that the pain will not go away, but I could still play handball.

They were right. I still play with pain, I still have pain in my shoulder, but I slowly got back to my best after such a long lay-off. But it was not over. Only three months after my comeback for Oltchim, I got another injury, this time tearing my left ACL, a knee injury which meant another six to nine months of rehabilitation and another break.

This was my prime: They say handball players have their top performances between 22 and 28 years old, and there I was, missing another big chunk of my career. It did bring some questions, it did make me feel bad, but after three or four months, I just looked at myself in the mirror and I just knew.

“You need to make your comeback. It is time to be back at your previous level.”

So I worked even harder. To be back on the top level, I had to work a lot. Harder and harder. Better and better. Once again, it was not easy, but this mindset and the grind made it better. I knew what I had to do, so I just did it.

My only experience outside Romania was at Buducnost. At first, it looked like a big gamble for them, because I had only played for a few months in the last years. But I got a lot of responsibility, since I was the one calling the plays, in spite of playing as a left back. And that helped me a lot; it was a crucial moment in my career, it developed me even further, and it was exactly what I needed to be back at my level.

Sure, winning the Champions League in 2015 was an exciting moment, a huge achievement for me, it was the first title won at such a high level and it was something I have always dreamt about.

But, once again, the injury nightmare came back. It was 2018 – by that time I had already been back to Romania, featuring for CSM Bucuresti, I was back in my hometown – and I was playing once again at the EHF EURO. Maybe I had played too much, but when I went down in the game against Hungary, I instantly knew.

I tore my right ACL this time, and the competition was over for me, even though Romania went to the semi-finals but eventually missed out on a medal. Once again, there were rehab sessions, a lot of patience, but this time around, I had the experience. I was 30 years old and knew what to do.

Of course, there were setbacks; many do not know that I had over 20 painkiller shots in my knee just to keep going after the comeback, it was another tough moment. But I did not tell you these stories, which are definitely not nice to hear, just for the sake of it.

I love handball. I love what I am doing, this is the beauty of the sport. Because you can be back after an injury, you can try to win again, you can be on the court and enjoy yourself and try to win titles once again.

But, of course, I just turned 35 years old, and my career is nearer to its end than to its start. This is clear, and at my age it is difficult to say that you are not feeling the pain of the injuries, the fatigue and the minutes on the court. But these drawbacks also come with the experience to manage everything; I know exactly what I am doing now and how to cope with everything.

I get asked a lot about the end of my playing time. Right now, I am still feeling good, I am still on a high level, I still have a lot of dreams for my career. While I might have won a lot of trophies, I do want another Champions League title with CSM Bucuresti, as I know what it would mean for everybody.

But after that?

Well, it is difficult to say it, of course, but I would like a longer break from sport. Do not get me wrong, I love handball, I love the sport, I love what I am doing. It gave me everything I have, it was an emotional roller-coaster, it is still the thing that I love to do most and have been doing for nearly 25 years now. 

But, sometimes, as time passes by, I would like to have a normal schedule on a given day, a vacation without strings attached – June is the only free month for us handball players – would also be nice. I gave it a lot of thought and maybe a break would be nice. But that is a discussion for another moment, as there is still a lot to do now on the court. A new Champions League season is starting.

What is next?

Coaching? Well, I also thought about that, but I do not know if I would be a good coach. Maybe yes, maybe no. Let’s see what the future holds. I am still playing now.

And maybe because I have talked a lot here and have talked more about injuries, I would like to end on a happier note. When I was little, I did not imagine I would become a role model for many later in my life. I get a lot of messages from children which say I inspire them or that they like what I am doing on the court.

But I think this is the most important thing. I would not say it is a legacy, but it is one of the reasons I am now here. It is not about the number of titles I won, or how many goals I scored in my career. It is about inspiring others, helping them to learn that they can achieve everything if they work hard and dream about big things.

It is all in your hands.

Cristina Neagu,
September 2023

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