John Kusku was a member of the silver-medal-winning U.S. Men’s Goalball Team at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and is headed to Tokyo to represent Team USA once again. By day, he is a high school math and physics teacher with a background in music. Find out more about John in this Q&A:
Q: How did you initially get involved in goalball?
A: I have a degenerative hereditary eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP). It causes me to have tunnel vision and night blindness. I was diagnosed with a vision problem at around six months old, and with RP at 4 years old. When I was younger my vision was better and I was able to keep up with my peers in most things without any accommodations. In middle school that changed. My peers got better and faster and my vision got worse. Goalball was the perfect outlet for me physically and socially. I found a game to play competitively and I found a social group to connect with. I met many people who were not afraid to acknowledge their blindness, use a cane, ask for help, and do the things they wanted to do even if it made other people uncomfortable. I cannot express how much self-confidence I gained from experiencing the world of goalball.
Due to my vision impairment, any game that I play with people who have normal vision puts me at an immediate disadvantage. No matter how hard I practice I cannot be “great” when I am in that situation. On the other hand, in goalball, since all players wear blacked-out ski goggles vision is not a factor. The more I play goalball and the more work I put into training the better I can be. I have no physical limit to the greatness I can achieve. I was first exposed to goalball playing in Detroit-area youth tournaments which were run by teacher consultants for children who are blind or visually impaired. I also attended the Michigan Blind Athletics Association (MBAA) sports education camp at Western Michigan University. That camp consists of four days of training and competition in many different sports. In 1998 I was selected to the Michigan Goalball Team to compete at the youth nationals in Florida. Since then I have been traveling the USA and Canada playing in about five tournaments each year. In 2009 I was selected to be part of the USA team and have subsequently traveled internationally to compete. I have played in Canada, the USA, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Poland, Lithuania, Turkey, Finland and Peru with Japan to come this summer.
Q: What’s your athletic background?
A: I have been playing goalball in the USA and Canada tournaments since 1999, so my athletic background is mostly just goalball. In the late 2000s, I ran the Detroit marathon twice and the Boston marathon twice with a best time of 3 hours, 40 minutes.
Q: Can you tell us about your days as a musician?
A: I started with piano lessons when I was a first-grader. I switched to trumpet in fifth grade and took private lessons from then until college. I would also add that my mother and I were always singing around the house and on car rides, so most days were also a vocal lesson. In high school, I played in symphonic, jazz, and marching band ending as the section leader and first chair player my senior year. At Western Michigan University I continued to play trumpet in the Bronco Marching Band every fall and the concert band every spring. I also became the section leader in the marching band for my fourth and fifth years. Many people would ask how one does marching band with no peripheral vision, and I would say, “I don’t know.” Mostly I spent a lot of time and effort memorizing and practicing.
Q: What did it mean to you to represent the U.S. at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games?
A: It is hard to find words to express what it was like to play for USA at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. So many conflicting emotions hit me after every single game. I walked off the court in tears every time. I was also very overcome with emotion during the entry parade for the opening ceremony and I anticipate that happening again for Tokyo. The support and hope sent from Americans back home is felt very keenly.
Q: Do you have a favorite goalball memory?
A: I struggle with absolutes, but one favorite goalball memory of mine was saluting the crowd with the Lithuanian team after our pool-play match in Rio in 2016. There were about 7,000 people in the stands and the game was very high-powered and close with a final score of 9-8. After we shook hands with the other team we all went to the sideline and held up our hands to the crowd. I happened to be the USA player on the end, and the Lithuanian coach reached over and grabbed my hand, so we had a complete chain of all USA players and coaches with all of the Lithuanian coaches and players. It was truly a moment of international sportsmanship and represents what the Paralympics are all about.
Q: Can you tell about your family and the support you receive from them?
A: My family that I live with is my wife Jessica and son George. Jessica is a teacher of children who are blind or visually impaired for the schools in Western Wayne County, Michigan. George is a third-grade student at Glengary Elementary School in Commerce Township, Michigan. We love to spend time together doing Star Wars stuff and also in the pool or at the beach up north near Alpena, Michigan.
We live in a beautiful neighborhood with a ton of trees and a lake down the street. An enormous state forest is less than a mile away. After school, I meet George at the bus stop and we walk home together. When we get home we have a snack and then do something fun like swim in the pool or play Legos. Jessica usually joins us and eventually, we get around to dinner. Jessica always prepares the meal, and I do the dishes.
My Brother, Taylan, is a teller at a credit union in St. Clair Shores, Michigan. He is the most creative person I have ever known. Both of my parents have passed on within the past seven years from cancer. My mother, Julianne, was the sales service manager for Universal Container Corporation in Ferndale, Michigan. She was a giant caregiver, and I was her pride and joy. She was so proud of all of my accomplishments. My father, Altan, was a toolmaker for Carboloy in Warren, Michigan. He was the most strong-willed person I have ever known. When he was 48 years old, after smoking cigarettes for 30 years, he quit cold turkey without regrets. He was always there to drive me to practices of all kinds. Both of my parents worked for the “big three” auto industry for their entire careers. Growing up near Detroit had a huge impact on me and my wife’s upbringing.
George is one of my prime motivators. In many ways, his excitement for my elite goalball competitions motivates me to set lofty goals and train hard. When he watched me process into the opening ceremony for the Paralympic Games in Rio 2016 on national television, I and my extended family absorbed his excitement and I often think about his reaction to that moment to get me through hard training. On the other hand, I plan my training and competitions, as much as possible, around George’s schedule. I am able to squeeze in my daily workouts between getting home from work at 3:15 pm and getting George off of his bus at 4:30 pm. Fortunately for me, George loves to come to goalball practice and travel to goalball tournaments to watch me play and see the “goalball guys.” I receive so much help from my friends, family, and my wife’s family that it is impossible for me to list everything that they have done to help me on my goalball journey: Countless car rides to bus stations, airports, practices, and back-and-forth to Fort Wayne, taking care of my son George when I am away, becoming goalball referees, assistance with hours of web research, and so much more!
Q: Outside of goalball training, how do you spend your time?
A: I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I read every issue of four magazines: Discover, National Geographic, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and Analog Science Fiction. I am always in the middle of reading at least two things at any time. My library consists mostly of non-fiction science and science fiction. While I write this I am in the middle of a book teaching me Japanese and an issue of Analog as well as the latest Stephen King novel.
Q: You have a master’s degree in mathematics. Does that come in handy for the sport of goalball?
A: There is no specific knowledge from my advanced math degree that helps with goalball, but through earning my degrees I learned to think differently than most people. I consider most problems very analytically, and I spend a lot of time thinking about goalball. As a result, I am constantly considering and evaluating everything about what I do and what we do as Team USA.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to share that our audience may not know, like favorite food, quirky talents, etc.?
A: My favorite food is pan-fried eggplant. After slicing the eggplant thinly, run each slice through an egg wash and breadcrumbs before it hits the pan to become crispy on the outside. Also, I can whistle in three different ways.