Going for the Gold: John Kusku chases goalball perfection

By Annemarie Blanco | June 23, 2015, 5:45 p.m. (ET)

John Kuzku (third from the left) pictured with Team USA goalball athletes after winning silver at the 2011 Parapan American Games. 

Twice a week, Going for the Gold will highlight a member of Team USA’s Parapan American roster leading up to the games beginning on August 7. Features will take a deeper look at a member of each of the 14 Paralympic sports that the U.S. will compete in during the 2015 Parapan American Games, held in Toronto. The second installment spotlights goalball athlete John Kuzku (Commerce Township, Michigan).

It’s hard to imagine a sporting event held in complete silence. Hold the cheers and the applause, unlike many other sports, crowd noise is prohibited during goalball games. For Paralympian John Kusku, that silence is essential to his success.

Specifically tailored to blind and visually impaired athletes, players must wear blindfolds and listen for bells inside the ball.

Kusku grew up with a passion for sport, and he craved something that could allow him to be competitive. After countless hours of research, he finally found an outlet that allowed him to remain healthy and compete.  

“It started when I was pretty young, about 12 or 13 years old,” said Kusku. “There was a sports camp held at Western Michigan University by a group of people who were trying to help young blind people be more athletic. I found a sport that, even though I had a visual impairment, I was still able to compete at a high level and didn’t have to have special accommodations in order for me to be able to play. I saw a path for me to do something athletic and exciting.”

As Kusku continued through high school and into college, his love of the sport never faltered and neither did his talents. He was selected to compete at the Goalball Junior Nationals in 1998 before moving on to several adult tournaments the following year.

A member of Team USA since 2008, Kusku is ready to bring his years of experience to the Parapan American games this August. With a little over a year until the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, he’s using Toronto as a means of preparation. 

“It’s basically a year before Rio,” said Kusku. “It will be kind of like the kickoff event. After Toronto there’s only one thing left to focus on, now it’s time to focus on that one tournament and get ready for it.”

He’s also eager to see what his team can do against some of the other top tier teams, one team in particular.  

“The men’s team from Brazil has already shown that they are one of the best teams in the world. They won the tournament in Finland, they won the world championships and they got second or third in London,” Kutzu explained. “They’re an extremely good team.”

“We have beaten them before but they have also beaten us before, four years ago at the Pan Ams in Mexico. They kind of unexpectedly beat us and took gold, we were a bit devastated. It will be really good to play that team twice, most likely we will play them in a round robin then play them again for gold.”

Aside from training, the veteran athlete must find time to balance a busy teaching schedule and his one- year-old son.  

“It’s very challenging,” said Kusku. “A lot of times I get home from work just about 45 minutes before my wife and son come home and I try to squeeze in workouts in that time. If I can’t, it’ll end up getting pushed back until after dinner or maybe around George’s bedtime. I try to get hard, long workouts in on the weekends when we have a little bit more flexibility.”

Thankfully for Kusku, his wife Jessica also shares his passion for goalball. A coach for local youth teams and his Michigan based men’s team, the WMY Wrecking Crew, the pair are able to work side by side on a daily basis bringing a whole new dynamic to their marriage.

“Off the court when we’re driving to a tournament, we’ll talk about some things that we could each do during the game such as let us know who has the ball, when this happens let us know how much time is on the clock or it might be a good idea to call a time out at this time,” said John Kusku. “When we’re at tournaments, it is kind of a hard dynamic to separate myself from the marital relationship and focus on a coach-player relationship, especially since I have more experience with the game.”

While it may be difficult at times, the dynamic duo doesn’t let on the court frustrations translate into their personal life.

“She has the advantage of focusing on doing her job, which is seeing the game from the sidelines, noticing things and letting us know what’s there and what we need to do. I focus on my job, blocking the ball and making good offensive plays.”

Jessica, their son George and extended family will travel to Toronto to support Kutzu in just a few weeks. For some, it’s the first time that they will witness the game in such a large-scale setting.

“I’m from the Detroit area so my family is going to be able to very easily travel to Toronto to see me play and they’ve never seen me play with Team USA before,” said Kutzu. “That’s probably the most exciting thing for me. “

The roster includes a mix of fresher faces and other veteran athletes. Kutzu is also eager to help mentor some of the newer athletes on his team. His biggest piece of advice for the younger generation involves mental preparation.

“When you’re sitting on the bus, walking down the side walk, lying down to go to bed or even on the treadmill, mentally rehearse playing goalball,” Kutzu explained. “Anytime you have mental downtime, you should mentally play. Think about the mistakes you’ve made. Basically it’s like rehearsing an entire game. Professional baseball players do the same thing; they rehearse their pitches in their minds before they throw the ball.”

While the Parapan American games is used as a qualifying event for many sports, the men’s goalball team punched their ticket to Rio after a successful showing at the 2014 world championship games. So, instead of worrying about making it to next year, John Kuszku and the rest of USA’s goalball team are ready to show the world a glimpse of what they can do. 

Parapan American goalball competitions will be held at the Mississauga Sports Centre beginning on Saturday, August 8 and concluding on the Saturday, August 15. The U.S. roster includes six female and six male players including Paralympians Jen Armbruster, Lisa Czechowski, Joseph Hamilton and Donte' Mickens. For more information on the upcoming Parapan American Games visit Toronto2015.org.