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Olafur Stefansson: Life lessons from Iceland's handball hero

updated 10:07 AM EST, Tue December 24, 2013
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  • Olafur Stefansson is regarded as Iceland's most famous handball player
  • The 40-year-old has played for Iceland in 330 matches and won an Olympic silver medal
  • After retiring in 2013, he is now coaching the next generation at Reykjavik club Valur
  • The lessons he learned along the way inform his hopes of "affecting others in a good way"

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for videos and features.

(CNN) -- Even if Olafur Stefansson dressed up as Santa Claus this Christmas, he would still have one of the most recognizable faces in Iceland.

He may not rival Bjork when it comes to fame on the international stage but, just like the singing icon, he is a big name in Iceland's popular culture.

Stefansson is a handball hero -- and handball is the second-most popular sport in Iceland after soccer. When the Iceland men's team matches are televised, a whopping 80% of the Nordic island's population of 322,000 tunes in.

With that kind of coverage alone, it's no wonder Stefansson is a household name, but that's not all.

An Olympic silver medalist and four times voted Iceland's sports personality of the year, at his peak he was rated as one of the best players in the global game.

After more than 20 years at the top, Stefansson retired in 2013 and is now handing down his knowledge to the next generation of Icelandic handball hopefuls.

The 40-year-old has come home to the capital city of Reykjavik to coach a group of young athletes at the Valur club, where his own career began.

"It's full circle," ponders Stefansson, who now distinguishes himself from the players buzzing around him by donning a fluorescent coaching bib and yellow whistle.

"It's one thing being a player and another being a coach.

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"As a player, if I was not in the mood I could just do my thing 100%, didn't have to relate to the guys or anything.

"As a coach you don't have that option. You have to vibrate, you have to be happier than those guys, you have to show passion, show urgency, show that you believe in what you're doing.

"It's a great thing -- it takes you further as a person."

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Stefansson, who represented Iceland in 330 matches, wants to ingrain a similar understanding of going beyond the boundaries to his Valur charges.

The wooden floors of the handball court spring with a squeak as the players move through the technical drills and handball skills that Stefansson describes as a player's arsenal, but he is trying to teach them something more esoteric.

"What I'm focusing on -- and what is usually the most neglected factor in all team sports -- is the sense of the game," he told CNN's Human to Hero series.

"You have to decide in split seconds between maybe five possibilities, and so you have to choose the best one.

"If you have this skill, then you have everything."

This sixth sense on the court only comes through learned experience.

Handball need to know

Handball is played by two teams with a maximum seven players on each side and a minimum five

A match consists of two 30-minute halves

The court is 40m x 20mwith a net on the shorter goal line

The game's spherical ball cannot be slippery or shiny.

Players can bounce, dribble or roll the ball.

They can use their arms, head, torso, thighs and knees during play

Handball has been popular in Iceland since the 1960s and is taught in schools

Like most children in Iceland, Stefansson started playing handball at school, but even then he had his own spin on the game.

"Me and my best friend, we just put our socks together and made a ball out of it," he explained. "One of us stood in the doorway -- and that was the goal -- while the other one tried to score."

Stefansson squeezed in as much practice as he could, counting down his remaining time to play with the chimes of the bells from the church next door to his school.

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But it was while at university that he made the switch from a vocational career in medicine to becoming a full-time student of the game.

"The national team was really strong in Iceland and they needed a left-handed player," Stefansson explained. "So, I took it on.

"The best thing that happened to me was that I didn't get through medicine the first time, so I had all spring to train like a professional. That happened twice -- those were the best springs of my life!

"Then I studied philosophy, just went on some courses and trained for handball like never before.

"After that, I got offers to play abroad. Met some good characters, met some bad, but from everybody I learned something."

Stefansson's international career took him to European and World championships as well as three Olympic Games.

He also spent 17 years on the road as a peripatetic player for leading clubs in Denmark, Germany, Spain and, most recently, Qatar.

Along the way, he amassed a series of domestic and five European club titles but each destination also provided new opportunities to learn.

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He described his six months living in Qatar, as the first international player to stay in the Arab state on a long-term deal, as "a great time."

"There were some restrictions. Great extremes between rich and poor, but they are great people," he said.

"I also picked up the language. I had to drive an hour every day to training so I had (a CD) of Arabic in my ears."

There was also an enduring lesson to be learned at his debut Olympic Games in Athens, where the Icelandic men's team failed to get out of the initial group stages.

"We didn't have much chance," Stefansson recalled. "But I took it all the way, I dreamed about the medal, I wrote down before and after games things that I should have done better.

"We finished ninth but in having done that, I had all those sketches in diaries. When I came back four years later I knew what I had done wrong and what not."

In 2008, Stefansson was captain of Iceland for the Beijing Olympics and he led the team to a brilliant silver medal. France snatched gold by six points in the final.

"We won the silver so that was great," he said. "Then in London I wanted to take it even further, so probably a month after winning the silver I started thinking about gold."

Iceland arguably had a stronger team at the 2012 London Olympics but, after tuning up with bronze at the European Championships in 2010, Stefansson's men lost to Hungary by an agonizing single point in the quarterfinals.

The man they nickname "The Falcon" retired from the international game in June 2013, but in looking back at his career it was those lessons learned in Beijing that he draws on the most.

"The silver medal was good," Stefansson reflected. "But the classic saying is that it's a road not a destination.

"What I enjoy about handball is this forgetfulness that you get in the game; you just forget yourself, your worries.

"Now I'm just trying to wake up happy every day, do some good stuff, be joyful, and affect others in a good way.

"When I achieve those states -- that would be my greatest achievement."

For now, the next part of that journey begins where it all began, with the hopeful handball players at Valur.

"It's my second home," smiles Stefansson, surveying the scene. "A place full of lights, you know, and full of warmth."

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