Players on the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Goalball Teams took some well-earned time off after winning silver and bronze, respectively, at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. But in January, teams were back on the court with their next big goal in mind - Tokyo.
To say Rio was a success for both teams is an understatement. The U.S. was the only country to have both Men’s and Women’s teams on the podium in Rio and it was the first time in 28 years that the U.S. Men’s team made it to the Paralympic championship match. The U.S. Women defeated host country, Brazil in the bronze medal game for a well-earned 3rd place finish after falling to China in the quarter-finals at the London 2012 Paralympic Games and finishing 7th.
U.S. Women’s National Team
Following their redeeming finish in Rio, the U.S. Women’s team is entering a new era after long-time head coach, Ken Armbruster, retired in October. In his 20 years of serving as the U.S. Women’s National Team Head Coach, Armbruster accumulated more wins than any other coach in U.S. Association Blind Athletes history. Filling those large shoes is Assistant Coach Jake Czechowski, who was promoted to Head Coach in the weeks following Armbruster’s retirement.
“My immediate goal is to maintain the level of excellence and tradition that past and current members of USA Women’s Goalball have worked so hard to sustain for over 30 years,” said Czechowski shortly after taking on the new role. Though filling Armbruster’s shoes will be difficult, Czechowski is inheriting some Paralympic talent that will set him up for success.
Amanda Dennis (Peachtree City, Ga.), who was named “One to Watch” by the International Paralympic Committee, is among that Paralympic talent. Dennis is a two-time Paralympian and now a medalist following the team’s success in Rio. Though reflecting on her success has been key to growing as an athlete, she’s already focused on her next goal.
“Gold in Tokyo,” Amanda answered immediately when talking about her aspirations. “But this year, I want to get stronger and work on my offense, scoring more goals for the team.”
Six athletes, including Dennis, traveled to Fort Wayne, Indiana for the first U.S. Women’s National Goalball Team Training Camp in January. Among them, emerging athlete Ali Lawson (Jasper, Ga.).
“The January training camp was very productive,” said Lawson. “It was definitely a great way to kick off the season. It’s always awesome to work with some of the best female goalball players out there.”
Lawson shares Dennis’ excitement for what is to come over the next four years. “The road to Tokyo has already begun for me,” said Lawson. “My ultimate goal is to be there representing Team USA. I am looking forward to the future of USA Goalball.”
U.S. Men’s National Team
After reminding the world they are a top contender in the sport, the U.S. Men’s National Team is focused on improving individually and as a team as they shift their focus from South America to Asia.
“We revamped our playing style in 2012, and the four years leading up to Rio were spent trying to iron out what we needed to do to be a winning team,” said Assistant Coach Matthew Boyle. “We accomplished the goal of finding a winning style, now the four years leading into Tokyo will be spent perfecting it.”
“Winning a silver medal in Rio was a huge success for our team,” said Boyle, “especially after not qualifying for the London Games. Winning a silver medal puts you in a great position, it gives you the confidence in knowing you are one of the best teams in the world and at the same time, it keeps you hungry knowing there is still more to achieve.”
Part of what helped the U.S. Men’s National Team succeed in Rio was the newly established Goalball Center of Excellence at the Plassman Athletic Center at Turnstone in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In October 2015, six male goalball players and a resident coach relocated to Fort Wayne to live and train full-time in preparation for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Their sacrifice paid off when they stepped onto the medal stand in Rio last September, nearly a year later.
“The Goalball Resident Program is the best thing that has ever happened for the U.S. Men’s Goalball Team,” said Daryl Walker, Rio 2016 Paralympian and current resident athlete at the Goalball Center of Excellence. “Without the Resident Program, I could not be the goalball player I want and need to be. The resident program has helped me and others discover the potential within us.”
U.S. Men held their first training camp of 2017 in Fort Wayne the first weekend in February. Like the women’s team, players included emerging talent and veterans from the Rio 2016 Paralympic team.
“Tyler Merren retired after Rio,” said John Potts, U.S. Goalball’s High Performance Director. “But both coaches and the remaining five men are ready to take the trip to Tokyo. The returning team will be challenged by several young and talented prospects along with a couple of returning Paralympians who are going to challenge everyone for the chance to make the 2020 Paralympic team.”
“Both teams are stronger and more motivated for success than ever,” said Potts. “If folks like what they saw in Rio, they’ll want to follow us as we work our way to Tokyo over the next four years!”