She had just landed in Qatar, and knew immediately that she shouldn’t be there. She was anxious and badly depressed – in no state to compete in Olympic qualifiers. Had she not been the acting team manager, and her backpack stuffed with thousands of dollars for the team’s hotel, she might have got the next flight home.
It was November 2015, and Hannah Mouncey – the pivot role player for the Australian men’s handball team – had arrived in Doha for Asia’s Olympic qualification tournament for Rio. She was not sick with the nerves of competition but with the weight of a secret. It was a secret she’d been holding a long time, but that she knew she’d have to liberate herself from soon. The fear was knowing that the liberation would be costly, but not knowing how costly, and her head was tormentedly busy with pessimistic forecasts. What would follow when she came out as a woman? Her family and teammates didn’t know; very few friends knew either. But she would have to come out soon, she knew, and begin her transition. It is hard to overstate her fear then. It was the fear of the unknown, of having to cross a profound threshold but not being able to see any land on the other side.
“I was about to set fire to my life,” Mouncey, now 32, says, “and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was terrified of losing handball. I was terrified of what people would think of me. No one wants to be labelled as a freak. No one wants to be labelled as an outsider. I was terrified of what people would do in terms of invading the privacy of people that I was close to. I was fearing a lot. I was fearing the unknown.”
By her own expectations, she played badly at that tournament. Her head wasn’t in it. She bickered with teammates, petulantly kicked a water bottle into the stands – earning her a two-minute suspension, on top of the one she was objecting to. It wasn’t like her, and she was costing her side, who were already being dominated by superior teams.
Her coach, Taip Ramadani, remembers her missing from the line-up before a match against South Korea. “I learnt that she had a panic attack,” he says. “There were some red flags about her mental health. And then she sent a post to the team about her journey. She suffered a lot in that period. It was a dark time for her.”
Hannah Mouncey had debuted for the men’s national team three years earlier. The next year, 2013, she played in her first handball world championship in Madrid. The thing with being an Aussie handballer is that you’ve got to really love it. Handball is a footnote in Australian sporting culture, poorly funded and little known. Players largely fund themselves, paying for uniforms, travel and accommodation. And when you’re playing internationally, you’re playing countries for whom handball is a major deal – European or South-East Asian squads whose countries revere the sport and whose players compete professionally in club competitions. Only once has either the Australian men’s or women’s side qualified for the Olympics, and that was in 2000 when we enjoyed automatic inclusion as host.
In 2013, Mouncey’s first world championship game was against Hungary. “I played terribly,” Mouncey says. “And the reason I was terrible is because I built it up to be such a big thing, I psyched myself out. Sport is won by players who have the best work ethic and who can keep their head.”
Their next match was even bigger. It was against Spain, both a powerhouse of the sport and the tournament’s host. But Mouncey says she had changed her approach, had successfully controlled the nerves. “You need to be able to quickly identify what went wrong and change it quickly,” Mouncey says. “Elite sport is about problem-solving. Being overawed was a rookie mistake. So on the way to the Spain game, I basically slept all the way on the bus. I tried to minimise [the game] as much as I could. They’ve got two arms, two legs. They’re people, just like anyone else, you know, and I played a good game.”
Mouncey felt at home on the court – the bigger the occasion and the crowd, the better. “What I’d realised, and I think this was partly me running away from all the gender stuff, was that the court was where I was most comfortable,” Mouncey says. “It sounds really counterintuitive, but I found it again when we played in Japan a few years later with the women’s team, in the Asian championships, that being in that environment, where you’ve got the lights, you’ve got the best players [in the world]. It’s where I’m most comfortable. And it still is now for me, there is nothing more comforting and peaceful than being in that environment on game day.
“The amount I threw [myself] into handball, in retrospect, it was very much to distract myself from all the gender issues that were going on from a very young age. I did it with cricket as a kid, too, until I found handball. I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing at the time, but it’s clearly what it was. A way to distract myself by throwing myself 110 per cent into handball and training, but also as a way to prove myself. To myself or others, I’m not sure, but it was largely I think to myself. But I always never fit anywhere and I knew that, and so by achieving things through sport, it was definitely a way to compensate for that.”
But two years later, in Doha for the Olympic qualifiers, she had run away from “the gender stuff” as far as she could. She was sick with anxiety, and experiencing panic attacks. Mid-tournament, she decided to tell her mum. She chose Facebook Messenger to come out to her. She was terrified, but she knew she had to do it. “I don’t actually remember a great deal of what I said, but it was pretty rambling,” Mouncey says. “I thought it was concise and then I remember re-reading it a day or two later and it very much wasn’t.”
Australia lost all four of its group games, three of them comprehensively. This wasn’t Hannah’s fault, but it wasn’t a great time. Nor would the next couple of years be. “Coming out didn’t really help,” Mouncey says. “I was in a really bad headspace for a while. I was too far gone really to come out of it quickly. I was really depressed, really unwell. I was diagnosed as bipolar afterwards. So that was not ideal. And I couldn’t work. I was too sick to work.”
After her transition, Mouncey was effectively homeless. She was living out of her car a lot, or bouncing between spare beds and couches in the homes of her mother, father and friends. Between spells in hospital, for anxiety and depression, she had taken up amateur footy in Canberra. During this time, she was encouraged to nominate for the inaugural draft of the AFLW in 2017.
Her decision to do so – and the AFL’s decision on her eligibility – would make her one of that year’s biggest sports stories, a staple of talkback radio, opinion pieces and TV commentary, and the subject of hysterical scrutiny and abuse.
This is part one of a two-part series on AFLW player Hannah Mouncey.
Read part two: Hannah Mouncey on the court of public opinion.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "Finding self".
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