Team USA goalball preparing for a comeback

By Jillian Clarke | July 14, 2014, 1:30 p.m. (ET)
Tyler Merren
Tyler Merren, a two-time Paralympian, helped the U.S. Men's National Goalball Team qualify for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games with a bronze medal at the world championships. The U.S. men have not appeared at the Games since 2008.

The pressure was on and expectations for the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Goalball Teams were high.

Qualifying for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games was on the line.

“We had to put in a lot more hard work for this world championship because we knew we’d be up against better teams,” said Amanda Dennis, member of the U.S. women’s team.

After landing in a disappointing eighth place at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the U.S. Women’s National Goalball Team had a sense of urgency and determination when heading into the 2014 Goalball World Championship in Espoo, Finland.

The unrelenting defense and powerful offense helped the U.S. Women’s team defeat Brazil 5-3 in the quarter finals and take down Japan 2-0 in the semifinals.

The U.S. women’s team beat Russia 3-0 in a tense gold medal match. Aysa Miller, who was voted MVP of the 2014 world championships, scored a goal in the first half, while Dennis scored in the first and second half.

“When it came down to the gold medal match against Russia, the game was about who wanted it more. We wanted it more. We wanted the world championship more, and we got it,” said Dennis, who added “world champion” to her resume along with 2012 U.S. Paralympian.With the sound of the final buzzer, the excitement from the U.S. women’s team was evident. Jumps of joy and a group hug were the forefront signs that all of the team’s hard work paid off.

“I’m excited that we qualified, and I’m looking forward to getting back to the Paralympics again,” said six-time Paralympian Jen Armbruster. “We are ready to go in and put the U.S. back on the medal stand.”

It is the first world championship for Team USA since 2002.

However, members of the women’s team were not the only ones celebrating.

After not qualifying for the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the members of the U.S. Men’s National Goalball Team had one goal on their minds at world championship: get to Rio.

“From our perspective, I felt that we were focused,” said two-time Paralympian Tyler Merren. “In a competition with this much pressure, it’s easy to have internal conflicts, but we were a unified front, and I feel that that made all the difference for us.”

The difference came when the U.S. men’s team beat Lithuania in the bronze medal match 4-2, making the team qualified for Rio.

After winning the quarterfinals game against Turkey 5-4, the U.S. men’s team went on to play Finland in the semifinals. Finland advanced to the gold medal match against Brazil after beating the U.S. 6-3.

Going into the bronze medal match against Lithuania, Joe Hamilton knew he and his team would have to step up their game in order to get the bronze and qualify for Rio.

“We shut them out in the entire second half,” said Hamilton, who played the entire match. “The other countries gave us everything and anything they had, but we were able to withstand.”

The U.S. was the only country at the tournament to qualify both the men’s and women’s teams, and the two teams already have strategic plans in place for their roads to Rio.

“There were points where we struggled defensively and offensively, and it breaks down to a few different critical areas of conditioning and practice,” Merren explained. “The more we can get on the court together, the more opportunities we get to practice and improve.”

As for the women’s team, Armbruster said, “For the next two years, one of our main goals is to get the younger players more experience competing against better teams and against more international teams.”

“I feel that the level of play across the board was at the highest it ever has been,” explained Merren. “So, we need to refocus our efforts and treat this as it should be treated: as the Paralympics and as a chance to honor our nation with our hard work and performance.

“Winning a gold medal in Rio would be icing on the cake,” said Hamilton.