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Bow native, St. Paul’s coach Fithian still chasing Olympic dream

  • Bow native and former NHTI women’s basketball coach Jennifer Fithian stands with one of her players, 1,000-point scorer Riselly Deleo, following a game last season. Courtesy of NHTI

  • Bow native Jennifer Fithian poses in her Team USA jersey with her two children. At 34, Fithian is balancing family life and coaching while still chasing her Olympic dream in handball. Courtesy of Jennifer Fithian

  • Bow native Jennifer Fithian (14) competes with USA Team Handball during an international match. Fithian, the current head coach for the girls’ basketball team at St. Paul’s School, is still chasing her Olympic dream. Courtesy of Jennifer Fithian

  • Bow native and current St. Paul’s women’s basketball coach Jennifer Fithian boxes out for a rebound during her college playing days at Binghamton University. At 34, Fithian is still chasing her Olympic dream in handball. Courtesy of Jennifer Fithian

Monitor staff
Published: 1/10/2019 12:19:55 AM

Jennifer Fithian was set up for basketball success.

She finished her career at Bow High School as a 1,000-point scorer, was named Miss New Hampshire Basketball following her senior season in 2002 and impressed enough scouts to earn a D-I scholarship to Binghamton University upon graduation where was a two-year captain for the Bearcats.

Everything was in place for Fithian to make a career for herself on the hardwood. All she had left to do was sign a contract that would take her basketball talents overseas.

And then she discovered the sport of team handball.

“I think by chance the (Women’s USA Residency Program) was an hour north of me so I said, ‘You know, why not? Let’s go give it a shot,’ ” Fithian said. “They were recruiting Division I athletes at the time. Basic things like can you jump? Can you catch? And can we mold you? Really looking for that true athlete and I just fell in love with the sport. I fell in love with the opportunity to play for my country.”

That spur-of-the-moment decision happened 13 years ago. Now, at 34, Fithian is still chasing that Olympic dream – just with a few more things on her plate as she juggles family life, the start of her basketball coaching career and training for Team USA.

“It’s definitely not easy. It’s awesome to have a partner that is 100 percent behind you and it gets more difficult when we started our family,” Fithian said. “But allowing the other person to follow those dreams – like those really big, crazy dreams – it’s pretty special.”

A career in handball

Fithian was admittedly “terrible” at the sport when she was first introduced to team handball in 2006. A superstar athlete in high school and college, the jump to the unfamiliar certainly took an adjustment period.

“As an athlete I was super intrigued with the challenge. But it was so frustrating and invigorating to get on the court and train every day,” Fithian said.

Her work ethic, however, quickly turned Fithian from a novice into a player good enough to make the Senior Women’s National Team, playing in the European Tour and USA Cup in 2006.

“I was doing double (sessions) in between waitressing tables. We would go to Europe for three weeks. It sounds awesome. It was awesome, but the schedule was grueling,” Fithian said. “My first European Tour we had 21 days, 21 practices and 21 games. And if you do the math, we traveled on a couple of those days, too.”

Fithian didn’t mind the grind and continued to rise through the ranks for USA Team Handball, becoming a team captain for several years, traveling the world and playing in the Pan American Division I Championship in 2008, the Pan American Games in 2011 and the Winter Classic in 2014, helping lead USA Blue to first place.

Alongside her then-boyfriend and now husband Jordan, another USA Team Handball player, the two eventually made the decision to move to Germany to play professionally, spending three years in Europe (2009-2012) where their skills improved tremendously.

“I’ve traveled the world because of this sport and it only made me want to dive in and commit more,” Fithian said. “We got so much better because we went in there not being so great and you had to just dig in if you wanted to be able to compete and wanted playing time. That’s when our games really took a turn for the better.”

This past September, Team USA qualified for the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru and Fithian is preparing to be a part of it.

“I know my time is limited. I am one of three oldest by far on the national team,” Fithian said. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll play, but it’s one of those things, especially as a female athlete, as long as I’m able to make that national team, why not take advantage and just enjoy my playing days because I do know they’re numbered.”

Rising through the coaching ranks

Fithian returned to the United States in 2013 to start her family and immediately went back to her first love: basketball.

She got a part-time position on Karen Pinkos’s staff on the women’s basketball team at Southern New Hampshire University, settling in for a year and learning the ropes before accepting another assistant coaching position on Kevin Gibbs’s staff at NHTI.

“My move to NTHI was initially so that my husband and I were coaching at the same school to try and navigate our schedule,” Fithian said. “Gibbs was my head coach that first year and he was awesome. He let me take the reins sometimes and gave me a little bit of an avenue to coach and hold that spot.”

Fithian wasn’t an assistant long. Once Gibbs left, NHTI Athletic Director Paul Hogan quickly tabbed Fithian as the next women’s basketball coach in 2014.

“My impressions were she was always professional and a very bright young lady that was highly motivated,” Hogan said. “I thought we hit the jackpot.

“She got the players on the basketball team to really buy in immediately and really work hard,” Hogan added. “She made it fun, but at the same time, (the players) were really giving great energy and enthusiasm to the sport and to the team and a lot of that credit goes right to her for that.”

Fithian spent four seasons on the sidelines of NHTI and was named Yankee Small College Conference Coach of the Year in 2016-2017.

“It was really exciting to have my first head coaching gig,” Fithian said. “I thoroughly enjoyed coaching the kids there and it was really cool to build a program to which kids started really wanting to come and play for. That was definitely something we were really proud of as a staff.”

Her success there opened the door for her latest move as the head coach for the girls’ basketball team at St. Paul’s School where she’s in the middle of her first season with the Big Red.

“I’m still competing as an athlete. At 34, I still have that opportunity and still have that sort of wisdom of telling these kids, ‘Yeah, I went out and did my workout. I’m ready and I need to stay in good shape for my team.’ ” Fithian said. “I think it’s one of those things we talk about with our athletes of not just talking the talk, but walking the walk and living what I’m preaching to them.”

(Jay McAree can be reached at 369-3371, or on Twitter @JayMcAree.)

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