U.S. Women's Goalball team looks for golden repeat

By Doug Williams | Aug. 10, 2012, 4 p.m. (ET)


When Jen Armbruster tries to explain goalball to someone who has never seen the sport, she says it’s a “kind of reverse dodgeball.”

In the fast-paced, three-on-three game, players use their bodies to protect their goal, throwing themselves down like soccer goalkeepers to stop a 3-pound ball launched by opponents at speeds up to 37 mph.

The more the ball hits you, the better it is. A bruise is just another shot stopped.

“We’re hitting the ground around 90 times a game,” said Armbruster, the senior member of the U.S. Paralympic Women’s Goalball Team that will play in London and the captain of the 2008 Paralympic champion team. “The ball’s a lot harder, obviously, than a dodgeball. It’s basically a 3-pound medicine ball.”

More often than not, Armbruster and her American teammates get the job done and have the bruises and medals to prove it. The United States enters the London 2012 Paralympic Games as defending gold medalists and among the tournament favorites.

Armbruster, 36, heads a highly experienced team that opens play Aug. 30 against Sweden. Four members return from the 2008 U.S. team that won gold in Beijing: Armbruster and Aysa Miller of Portland, Ore., Lisa Czechowski of Tucson, Ariz., and Robin Theryoung of Colorado Springs, Colo. Armbruster will be making her sixth appearance at the Paralympic Games; Czechowski and Theryoung will be playing in their fourth Paralympic Games and Miller’s trip to London will mark her third trip to the Games.    

Armbruster, who has a Paralympic silver medal (2004) and bronze (1996) to go with her gold from Beijing (where she also was U.S. flag bearer in the Opening Ceremony), said the nucleus of four veterans and two talented newcomers – Jordan Walters of Boulder, Colo., and Amanda Dennis of Peachtree, Ga. – is a great blend.

Even the young players have already gained valuable experience. Walters was on the 2010 World Goalball Championships team that qualified Team USA for the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Dennis helped the United States win gold at the 2011 Parapan American Games.

Both have long ties to Armbruster, who coached them on the U.S. under-19 team, and the four incumbent members of the U.S. team.

Though the sport now has much more parity than it did when she made her Paralympic debut in 1992 – with several of the 10 teams in London having a shot at gold – Armbruster believes this team is capable of repeating.

Czechowski said that after being on the court when the gold-medal game ended in 2008 against the Chinese, she’s hungry to experience that feeling again.

“All that work we put into it,” Czechowski said. “To have that moment, to know what we accomplished, it was amazing.”

So amazing that in the weeks that followed, she, Armbruster, Miller and Theryoung decided they would dedicate another four years to trying to win another gold in London.

After all, why put an end to a good thing? In the past six years, the U.S. women earned silver medals at the 2006 and 2010 World Championships and a Paralympic gold in Beijing.

“We decided right after the Games to stay together, to make that commitment,” Czechowski said.

* * *

To watch a goalball game at the highest level is to see two, three-person teams in constant motion and coordination.

The goalball competition in London will take place at The Copper Box, at first labeled the Handball Arena because it also was designated as the host for team handball in the Olympics (along with a portion of the modern pentathlon).

The goalball court is the size of a volleyball court, with open goals the length of each end of the court. Teams play two, 12-minute halves.

Because the sport is for players with diminished vision, all players wear blindfolds during competition to keep every team on an equal level. The 3-pound medicine ball that is used in the game contains bells inside it, so the players can hear its movements – and spectators must be quiet during play to allow players to hear.

Teams take turns rolling the ball at high speeds at their opponent’s goal, and defenders have about a second to react.

“Your primary defense is defending like a soccer goalie, diving out and extending your body to put your body on a ball that’s in space,” Armbruster said.

The 10-nation goalball field in London will be tough to fight through, Czechowski said.

“You can’t take a game off,” she said.

Once, it was Europe that ruled the sport. Then Canada and the United States became powers. Now, add China and Japan to the mix.

So winning definitely is not a given for the Americans.

“They say it all the time,” Armbruster said. “It’s sometimes easier to win the gold than defend it. The target’s been nothing but the gold the last four years. … We’re ready to go out and give our best shot.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.