To become a professional in a particular sport takes an enormous amount of skill, desire and dedication. To then join the paid ranks of a second, entirely different sport, is virtually unheard of.
Curtis Woodhouse springs to mind; the former England U21 star became disillusioned with football and decided to trade punches for pay – eventually becoming British champion in the boxing ring.
Then there was Neil Fuller, a lightning quick Aussie winger who played alongside Mark Bosnich before his promising football career was cut short after having his leg amputated following a horrific tackle just before his 18th birthday. He dusted himself off and went on to win 15 medals in athletics at four Paralympic Games.
If you consider darts to be a bona fide sport – and we certainly do here at the Sports Gazette – then Gerwyn Price’s metamorphosis from professional rugby player to world champion is astonishing. Now there’s another man on the darts scene looking to prove that he can emulate the controversial Welshman by succeeding in the noble art of tungsten throwing.
Former handball goalkeeper Florian Hempel is now officially a professional darts player, earning his place on the PDC Pro Tour after fighting his way through a gruelling four days of Qualifying School in Niedernhausen last week.
The multi-talented German picked up his first dart just three and a half years ago, but now has his sights firmly set on the first major tournament of the season, the upcoming UK Open.
The Sports Gazette spoke to Hempel as he looks back at his former career, how handball helps his dart game, and how it feels to throw arrows next to the legendary Dutchman Raymond van Barneveld. It might be useful to listen to ‘For You’ from the Disco Boys while reading…
Hempel, the handball goalkeeper
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 30-year-old first saw the light of day in a small town in East Germany. Dessau-Roßlau is a city known for handball, Germany’s second most popular team sport, and that local tradition is what brought Hempel to competitive sport at an early age.
“Playing handball was wonderful. As a handball player, I would’ve probably said: ‘I’m never playing darts’,” laughs Hempel.
Today, the German reminisces on his handball career, although he never secured a starting role for his hometown club in the second division.
“It’s great to have a hobby that pays your rent. I had the privilege to play in packed arenas and to delight the fans with my game. That’s what I want to do with darts as well,” says Hempel.
Handball is one of the wildest and most thrilling sports in the world. Being a goalkeeper is considered being one of the most dangerous positions in all of sport. “You’ve to be crazy when a ball comes with 100 km/h at your shoulder, arm or head. There’s no chance to survive without lots of adrenaline,” explains Hempel.
Hempel, the darts player
“I remember one situation over 10 years ago. I had breakfast with my best mate and his dad while darts was on German television. Phil Taylor walked into an enormous arena with ‘The Power’. My mate’s dad just said: ‘Look at him. They behave like a big boss and only throw some darts at a wall’,” laughs Hempel about his first contact with the sport.
Surely his mate’s dad will be more than thrilled to see Hempel at the PDC Pro Tour, starting tomorrow. “It’s just a huge coincidence. It started with a dartboard at my shared house; just to play a little,” says Hempel.
“I selected my first darts by the design. After some shafts broke, I went to a dart shop in Cologne. The same night, I played my first tournament and won,” explains Hempel. That was just three years ago.
“Coming from a sport that lives from adrenaline, going into a sport where adrenaline is the worst was the hardest process. To control your emotion was the most difficult task in the last years,” says Hempel about his journey to the PDC Pro Tour.
Yet, his former career helped him to focus on his new goal: becoming a professional darts player. “The discipline you learn helps to pull yourself through. I’m really ambitious and my experience helps me to structure my day,” says Hempel.
In 2018, the learned fitness coach and nutritionist went all in. He quit his job, registered for unemployment benefits, and took aim at his goal. “I treated it like a job; trained 4,5,6 hours a day; played four tournaments a week,” says Hempel.
Tournaments aren’t just good for the pocket; they mainly benefit your game. “I lacked coolness and experience,” Hempel admits. “I tried to take every opportunity, no matter if in the Netherlands, Germany, wherever.”
Look, aim, bullseye
Today, Hempel sits in a hotel, waiting for the PDC Pro Tour to start. He won the Tour Card with an impressive performance on day three of the European Qualifying School. “The whole package added up. The mix of coolness, calmness, self-confidence, and a feel for the dart,” Hempel explains.
Asked about the life in a bubble – the players stayed in a hotel for the entirety Qualifying School – Hempel was pleased by the PDC’s hygiene concept: “We did a rapid test, filled out some forms and waited an hour in our room.
“If no official called us, the test was negative and we were allowed to commute between our room, restaurant and dartboard. It was a strict but really good hygienic concept. I felt really safe all the time.”
In the bubble, Dutch legend and five-time world champion Raymond van Barneveld competed successfully for a Tour Card right next to Hempel. “Surely, it’s a weird feeling that a five-time champion plays for the same thing.
“That said, he wasn’t treated differently to anyone. He did what everyone else did: commuting between chair, practice board and match board. He did his warmup and drank his water.”
Stronger drinks than water had a major influence on Hempel’s choice for his walk on song ‘For You’ from the Disco Boys. “I was an animateur at a hotel in Cyprus for half a year. For one week, the Disco Boys were our DJs and threw huge parties with ‘For You’. That’s stuck in my memory.”
Expectations for the UK Open
Although Hempel won his first amateur darts tournament, he doesn’t expect to win his first professional as well. “I want to arrive first. I haven’t even realised to be a professional darts player yet,” says the German.
While he is unlikely to win the tournament, that doesn’t affect his enthusiasm. “The UK Open is like the FA Cup, everything is possible. There are always many surprises. But this year will be the year of Michael van Gerwen again,” tips Hempel.
The coming days and weeks will show if the darts world has a new star on the horizon. Hempel wouldn’t be the first former athlete who reached for the stars. “The sport writes beautiful stories,” reminds Hempel.
“Darts has so many beautiful stories how people started their careers. Gerwyn Price quits rugby and becomes world champion and the world number one. Rob Cross wants to show his kids that everything is possible, gains a Pro Tour Card, and wins the world championship the same year.
“Everyone has his own background, goals and ambitions,” says Hempel – the German who transformed himself from a crazy, extroverted handball goalkeeper to a calm and controlled dart player.