This is me: Dainis Kristopans
Dainis Kristopans. He's the man known as the tallest player to have ever won the EHF Champions League. And he's totally fine with that. But there's more to Dainis than just his height. As one of Latvia's biggest ever handball stars, Dainis explains in his own words what it was like growing up being 'that tall guy' in the playground at school and how he went to use his size to become one of the sport's most iconic figures.
This is me: Dainis Kristopans
Step by step
Step by step.
This has always been my way of doing things in life. From my younger years, back in Ludza in Latvia, to now, in Paris.
It has not always been easy for me, though.
You might know me as “the tallest handball player on the planet”, and that is absolutely fine by me. It is something that I have gotten used to live with these days.
But there used to be days when things were not that easy.
In the small village I was born in, the kids were always bouncing around in the street. There were computers and no smartphones back then. Just children with balls running around for days.
But I was already the one standing out. My parents, Ernest and Regina, were not that tall. They came from a normal background – and they did not expect to raise such a tall child.
At school, even before reaching my teenage age, I was always one head above everyone else. Even at kindergarten, my mum tells me, I was already stronger than all the other kids.
And you know how kids are. If you are different, they might sneer and crack a few jokes. That is what they did to me. It was never that bad though.
But I made the most of my ‘difference’ afterwards.
People always ask me why I did not start playing basketball. I cannot think of anyone not having asked me this question. The answer is always simple: in my small village there was no basketball club.
I took up handball training one day, following my friends from school. I felt awkward. They all knew what to do and me, being the new one, I had everything to learn.
But I stayed. Being left-handed and tall, everyone could see I could be an asset for their team, even if I did have everything to learn.
That was my first baby step.
If this first handball day was the first step then moving to Slovakia to play for Tatran Prešov at 18 was another one. Not a scary one, but looking back, a very big one.
I was actually very excited about moving abroad on my own. I had been travelling up and down the country already, and I had really liked it.
My parents though, were much more reluctant to let me go. I was their only child, and they were unsure about handball.
I had to convince them, tell them I trusted my instinct, while they wanted me to keep up with school. But I had made my choice, and they never tried to change my mind about it again.
On the court, I was the happiest man. Playing was all that mattered to me. I was just focused on making progress, playing more. But I never thought about anything else. Winning the EHF Champions League and domestic titles - that was far away from my mind.
Having an unusual body might have made me choose unusual heroes. My handball hero was Pascal Hens. He was a very special player, with his own style of shooting and he was just part of the team than a leader. I could definitely see something in his style that connected to me.
Through all those years, I became aware than my height could be an advantage on the court. Long gone were the jokes from the kids in the street, now I could see the interrogation in my opponents’ eyes.
“How am I going to stop him?” they thought.
And I might, at some point, thought that they could not. That I knew everything about handball, that being that tall was such an advantage that I could exclusively rely on that.
I was wrong. So wrong. And one man showed it to me: Raul Gonzalez.
At my first training session with Vardar he corrected everything I did. My steps. How I was using my arm to throw the ball.
Those summer camps are usually to warm yourself up ahead of the season, but I came back home and I questioned everything again.
Raul changed my handball life forever. He shattered all my certainties to pieces and built them back up again. I would not be the player I am today without him.
So it only made sense to join him in Paris. For him to call me up and ask me to join him, was the ultimate proof of my progress. Gone was the lonesome child awkwardly throwing the ball at his first training. I had become a wanted player by some of the biggest clubs on Earth.
This giant leap that is moving to Paris Saint-Germain stands between two other giant leaps.
The first one was winning the EHF Champions League with Vardar. The whole thing was unreal and still feels like a dream today. Raul knew we had that in us, and his trust was 1000% rewarded on the court.
I can only remember the celebrations in Skopje. Those two days without sleeping, the fans at the airport, the meeting with the president…For a calm guy like me, that was the most joyful chaos I ever experienced.
These days, I only pick up the best side of what people say to me about my height. They ask questions, I can feel that I am different, but most of them do in a nice way. I got used to it, and handball helped me accept my body as well.
And, just before leaving…
Since I was taking about giant leaps, I have to tell you about the second one.
My son came to the world at the end of October, and I often joke that it feels like winning the EHF Champions League again.
It made me change my priorities, become a new me. There is not only handball in my life anymore, I have something to focus on when I get back home.
It made sweeter, and I lived through emotions I could never imagine before.
Will he be as tall as me? I do not care. But I cannot wait to see him to his first baby steps.