Vale Sasha Dimitrić

Written by: Taip Ramadani

Last Friday, the founder of Handball in Australia, Aleksandar Dimitrić – ‘Sasha’ – passed away in Sydney, in the presence of Irina, his wife and lifetime friend.

I was 15 when I first met Sasha, in 1987. A Kuwaiti friend found a handball team based in Kensington, and we wanted to meet with them with a view to joining their team. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back or they won’t pick us,” was my friend’s advice to me before we went. What he should have said was: ‘bring your gear’!

The team of mostly European university students was about to start warm-up by the time we arrived.  Sasha noticed us as soon as we walked in, greeted us, then asked us to get changed quickly; the training was about to start.  By the look of surprise on our faces, he realised we were there just to look and hadn’t expected to train. I never forgot his response: ‘never show up to a training session without your gear again’.

In the years that followed, Sasha continued to coach our young group. Different venues for different nights of the week, lugging around equipment that he had bought at his own expense from Europe, helping us hone our skills, and staying back with anyone that wanted to have a few more throws at the end of the session. 

His training sessions were serious. He didn’t tolerate banter or jokes. The level of discipline he demanded felt like military service at times, but he instilled in me and my teammates an unmatched work ethic and passion for the game.

Despite being in his fifties then, he still had more power in his throws than most of us – and when he dislocated his index finger at training one night, he popped it back in position and continued the session. 

Sasha started playing handball in his native Yugoslavia, in the 1940s, when it was still an outdoor game closely resembling football. In the 1950s, when the sport evolved to its current indoor format, he won two Yugoslav national titles with Red Star Belgrade and represented Yugoslavia in several international competitions.

Sasha Dimitrić during an outdoor handball game in Yugoslavia in the 1950s

Sasha migrated to Australia from Yugoslavia in 1964 to work as a civil engineer and soon found his calling in sport, turning his energy to bringing handball to a country that had never heard of it.

In 1993, when Sydney was announced as the host city for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, he suddenly found true purpose in his work. He wasted no time in putting together the Olympic national training squad. I was so thrilled to be included that I think I did not sleep for days after being told.

Sasha immediately started putting in place the foundations for future national teams. He had secured new funding, partnerships, and projects across the world. Almost overnight, we went from training in dimly lit, dusty courts, to the best facilities in the nation, at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra.

We were touring Europe twice a year and started to get noticed around the world. He had lobbied the International Handball Federation for years to provide pathways for Australia to compete at the World Championships. By 1994, we had played our first World Championship qualifier against New Zealand, in Canberra.

Sasha Dimitrić with the Australian Handball team in Switzerland in 1994

He was fiercely protective of the team. Once, during a gruelling town-to-town tour across Europe, we had narrowly lost to a second-tier German club. In the post-match dinner hosted by the club, their jokey president mockingly offered Sasha a children’s book about the ABC’s of handball. Without missing a beat Sasha handed the book back, directing him to “exchange it for the ABC of human decency.”

He soon turned his focus to sports administration and found coaches to help develop the game throughout Australia. Years before, Sasha had laid the foundation for the sport to set its roots in Australia. From introducing the game to building the formal structures, then gaining recognition internationally, he was instrumental in every step of those early days of handball in Australia.

He supported and mentored me till the very end. Our chats became rarer with time, but when I last visited him in hospital, earlier this year, his face lit up when I mentioned to him that Brisbane might host the 2032 Olympic Games.  He had told me once that his sporting highlight was seeing Australia compete in handball at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. He would be immensely proud the Games could be coming back to Australia again, and that we had another chance to compete amongst the world’s best teams.

I will forever cherish Sasha’s passion and dedication for handball.

Irina, his wife, told me on Saturday that she had been the one to encourage Sasha to start handball in Australia, and had supported him along his journey.  There were moments though where she had felt like a “handball widow”, but with time they built on their wonderful and loving relationship. 

Today I mourn the loss and emptiness he leaves in our closely-knit handball community in Australia.

Sasha is survived by wife Irina, son Srdjan and daughter Tania.

He is commonly known as the father of handball in Australia.

Taip Ramadani is a handball coach based in Canberra. He represented Australia between 1994 and 2009. He was the head coach of the Australian men's national team from 2009 to 2013.