One could argue that there was not much choice for Dmitry Zhitnikov. His father Valery was a handball player, captain of Russian side Astrakhan and later on a much-heralded coach who – among other achievements – discovered the talent of 2000 Sydney Olymic Games gold medallist, Dmitry Kuzelev.
His uncle, Yury Zhitnikov, also played handball and so did his mother – however, the latter just for a short while.
So what other choice did Dmitry Zhitnikov have than becoming a handball player?
"At first I liked acrobatics, trampolining and athletics,” the 23-year-old recalls these days.
"But when I was eight, I came to my first handball training and got the feeling that this is my sport."
He was then living in Krasnodar, close to the Black Sea, but is now playing in his third season for Russian national champions and VELUX EHF Champions League participant, Chekhovskie Medvedi.
The club boasts an incredible record in Russian handball. Led by former national coach, Vladimir Maksimov, the ‘bears’ have won more than 160 consecutive matches and are undefeated in the Russian domestic league for more than 240 matches since 2004.
In the Champions League they have definitely reached the round of the last 16 and it is just a matter whether they finish first, second or third in their group. But Zhitnikov’s expectations go even further.
"We want always to win in each match. Our objective is to bring the main prize to Russia. As a minimum we want to reach the FINAL4."
2013 in many respects has become a turning point in the young Russian player’s career. While he was already part of the national team at EHF EURO 2012 in Serbia, it took until the 2013 World Championship in Spain that was able to show his full skills.
He was selected for the final squad instead of his Chekhov teammate, Vasily Fillipov, and during the tournament he spent almost as much time on the court as first choice playmaker, Pavel Atman.
Furthermore Zhitnikov’s 17 goals helped Russia to secure 7th place after the once mighty handball nation Russia had failed to qualify for the World Championship in 2011.
"The call for the national team, of course, made me happy. But I was nervous at the same time because there were only two middle backs in the team, Pavel Atman and myself.
"Therefore excitement and happiness at the same time were always with me."
A young player who never stops dreaming
Zhitnikov thinks that by placing 7th, Russia achieved their minimum goal and he is also reasonably happy with his own performance.
"I think all our matches were good with the starting match against Iceland (30:25) can really be considered as the most successful for our team. Also for me, I played not bad in that match.
"I would give it (my overall performance) a three out of five. I know that I can still improve in all departments.
"My main fear is that I’m not fully showing my playing skills. That I don’t manage to show what I am capable of."
Therefore it is not in Zhitnikov’s mind to be satisfied with what he has achieved in handball at the young age of 23 so far.
When allowed to dream, he dreams of becoming an Olympic champion with the Russian national team, not forgetting to mention his desire to win the remaining pinnacles of international and club handball in the same breath: the EHF EURO trophy, the World Championship and the VELUX EHF Champions League.
However, Zhitnikov, who states France’s Didier Dinart, Croatia’s Ivano Balic, and Denmark’s Niklas Landin as the players he looks up to, is quick to stress that success is not about him but all about the team.
"To make my team the winner (gives me the best emotions). Otherwise actions (scoring or assisting a goal) have no value."
Zhitnikov says the German Bundesliga and the Spanish Asobal are probably the strongest leagues in handball, but currently his focus is all on Chekhovskie Medvedi and the Russian national team.
"I am never thinking about it (any other league). And I don’t exclude that I will play for my entire career in Russia. Just like my teammates Vasily Filippov and Vitaly Ivanov."