In October 2015, the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) partnered with Turnstone Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to establish the first-ever U.S. Men’s Resident Goalball Program. The resident program would allow athletes to train together full-time and live within walking distance of training facilities. As a result, the U.S. Men earned silver at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games just one year later. The U.S. Women, historically one of the best goalball programs in the world, defeated host-country Brazil for bronze. While the U.S. Women had a resident program many years ago, at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, the program was not sustained and athletes have been training individually at locations across the country.
Now, after securing additional funding from Fort Wayne Residents Mr. Ron Plassman and his wife, Suzanna, USABA and Turnstone will welcome female athletes to Fort Wayne for the first-ever long-term U.S. Women’s Goalball Resident Program. Like their male counterparts, female resident athletes will train together full-time and live within walking distance of the training facilities. The first group to participate in the program includes Paralympians and up and coming goalball athletes, all of whom will be coached by U.S. Women’s Goalball Head Coach, Jake Czechowski who relocated to Fort Wayne in August.
Paralympians Lisa Czechowski, Amanda Dennis and Eliana Mason used to live and train in Tucson, Atlanta and Portland, respectively, but will now train together five days a week at Turnstone.
“Training every day will improve our team as a whole immensely and help us reach our fullest potential,” said Mason. “Goalball is a difficult sport to practice on your own. It’s time-consuming to set up the court and you need complete silence when working on defense. Without a court and quiet venue, there is a lot of limitation for growth.”
For a team sport like goalball, it is critical that team members practice together frequently. Before the resident program was established, goalball players were traveling to a central location once every three to four months for a weekend-long intense training camp with months of solo practice between training camps. In addition to making the team more cohesive, the resident program is also helping athletes realize goals and dreams they’ve had since being introduced to the sport.
“Being part of the Women’s Resident Program means I’m one step closer to accomplishing my goals of making the Tokyo 2020 team and coaching goalball at my alma mater,” said up-and-coming goalball athlete, Vanessa Coleman.
Though Coleman, Mason and Shavon Lockhardt will arrive in Fort Wayne shortly before training begins on October 2, Rio 2016 Paralympic bronze medalists Czechowski and Dennis are already on the ground.
“Everyone has been so helpful,” said Dennis. “The staff at Turnstone, friends and family of people who attend Turnstone and even some of the Uber drivers in Fort Wayne have been really helpful,” said Dennis. “They’ve helped us acclimate to our new home by offering good advice on things to do and giving up time during their day to be good mentors!”
These five athletes make up the inaugural class of female resident athletes training full-time at the U.S. Goalball Center of Excellence. Coleman, Czechowski, Dennis, Lockhardt and Mason will begin training full-time under the direction of Head Coach Jake Czechowski on Monday, October 2. To learn more about each of the resident athletes, check out their bios below.
Lisa Czechowski is a five-time Paralympian and four-time Paralympic medalist. Most recently, Lisa helped the U.S. Women’s Goalball Team earn bronze at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. She also has gold and silver Paralympic medals in goalball from the Beijing 2008 and Athens 2004 Games, respectively. However, her first Paralympic medal (silver) came from the Sydney 2000 Games for her success in the F12 discus event. In addition to being a track & field Paralympian, Lisa was also a member of the U.S. Women’s Goalball Team at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.
Lisa was born with nystagmus and diagnosed with cone dystrophy in middle school. She was participating in track & field events when she was introduced to the sport of goalball by an Adaptive P.E. teacher her sophomore year of high school. She continued competing in track & field events earning success in shot put and discus before she also began focusing on goalball after her competitive season in 2001.
In 2004, Lisa met her now husband, Jake Czechowski, at a USABA Sports Education Camp in Colorado Springs. The two married in January of 2009 and had their first son, Jay, in 2014. Jake served as the Assistant Head Coach for the U.S. Women’s Goalball Team before he was promoted to Head Coach following the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Lisa, Jake and Jay recently relocated to Fort Wayne to devote more time to her training and Jake’s coaching at the Goalball Center of Excellence.
Lisa thanks many for helping her get to where she is today. “There are so many people I thank for helping me get this point in my athletic career: my husband, family, coaches, friends, teammates, and so many others. It has taken a team of people supporting me in so many areas to help me get to where I am today. I am so grateful for all of the support I have and cannot thank everyone enough for pushing me to achieve my goals and supporting me while I worked to achieve them.”
Birthdate: May 29, 1979
Hometown: Boonton, N.J.
Current Residence: Fort Wayne, Ind.
High School: Boonton High School
College: Desales University ’01, Criminal Justice
Motto: Success is a journey, not a destination.”
Favorite cheat food: Cookies
Five-time Paralympian (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016)
Rio 2016 Paralympic Games – bronze, goalball
London 2012 Paralympic Games – 8th, goalball
Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games – silver, goalball
Athens 2004 Paralympic Games – silver, goalball
Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games – silver, discus
Growing up, Vanessa Coleman’s family and friends simply thought she was clumsy when she bumped into things or had a hard time following the soccer ball on a field. At 9 years old though, it became apparent there was a reason for her clumsiness. In 2010, Vanessa was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration. The next year, Vanessa transferred to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind where she learned about the sport of goalball.
As it turned out, Vanessa had a natural propensity for the Paralympic sport. She took to it quickly, winning high school national championships and earning spots on junior national teams. Since finding the sport, she was named to the All-American Team for 5 consecutive years and was named MVP at the USABA High School Goalball National Championships in 2015 and 2016.
“Playing goalball has taught me how to be strong, and not just physically. The mental aspect of the game is amazing. It’s taught me how to stay calm and not crack under pressure. Goalball has also given me a community of people I can connect with who truly understand the difficulty of living with limited vision. It has even given me a few that I might even say I consider family. My teammates are my family and I look out for them and support them no matter what.”
Vanessa credits her coach at Florida School, James Crozier, for helping her become the athlete and person she is today. “Coach Crozier has always been there to offer advice and he taught me how to play. He never gave up on me and because of that, I have so much respect for him. Without all of the life lessons he taught me and all of the training he put me through, I definitely would not be who I am or where I am today.”
Vanessa hopes to make the U.S. Women’s Goalball Team and compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and aspires to one day give back to FSDB by serving as Head Goalball Coach.
Birthdate: May 26, 1999
Hometown: Lakeland, Fla.
Current Residence: Fort Wayne, Ind.
High School: Florida School for the Deaf and Blind ‘17
Motto: “I can. I will. End of story.”
Favorite cheat food: Aussie Cheese Fries with Ranch from Outback Steakhouse
Connect with Vanessa on Instagram: @Queen_Coleman_737
Born with aniridia and nystagmus, Amanda’s parents, Winfred and Elizabeth Dennis, encouraged to participate in adaptive sport. At 7 years old, Amanda attended a Sports Education Camp hosted by Blaze Sports and learned about goalball. She instantly fell in love with the sport.
Why goalball? “Goalball Is one of the only sports that creates an equal playing field for all blind and visually impaired participants. I love the game because I’m challenged every day. It’s also taught me discipline on the court and in everyday life.”
This year, Amanda is focused on getting stronger and becoming a more powerful offensive player on the court. In 2020, she wants to be part of the U.S. Women’s Goalball team winning gold at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
When she’s not improving her goalball game, Amanda enjoys being active outdoors, weightlifting and reading. She credits many for helping her get to this point in her athletic career but her parents top the list. “My parents are a huge reason I am who I am today. When I was little, they drove me an hour to practice in Atlanta, simply because I enjoyed playing goalball. They have always supported me both financially and psychologically, offering words of wisdom and verbal support. They have been the most involved with helping me grow as an athlete, whether it was through coaching, or the mental hiccups along the way. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
When she’s not improving her goalball game, Amanda enjoys being active outdoors, weightlifting and reading. She enjoys reading fantasy books like Harry Potter, Divergent and Hunger Games.
Birthdate: February 5, 1994
Hometown: Peachtree City, Ga.
Current Residence: Fort Wayne, Ind.
High School: Lighthouse High School ‘12
College: University of Georgia ’15, Sports Management
Motto: “Almost every successful person begins with two beliefs; the future can be better than the present and I have the power to make it so.”
Favorite cheat food: Red velvet cake or any type of dessert
2016 Rio Paralympic Games – bronze
2015 ParaPan American Games – silver
2014 IBSA World Goalball Championships – gold
2013 Parapan American Games – gold
2012 Paralympic Games – 6th
Connect with Amanda on Twitter and Instagram: @Dennisamanda7
Introduced to the sport in high school, Sahvon Lockhardt has been playing goalball for four years. “Goalball serves as a teacher for me. Not only do I enjoy playing, but it teaches me how to stay focused and not overthink.”
Born with macular degeneration, Shavon attended the New York Institute for the Blind near her hometown of Brooklyn from a young age. It is her former coach, Devin Bullock, and teammates Darryl Austen and Jahron Black she credits for helping her develop into the athlete and person she is today. “I give credit to my former coach, Devin, for reaching out and giving me the opportunity to play,” she said. “Major credit goes to Darryl and Jahron for working with me countless times on and off the court.”
Shavon aspires to travel the world playing the sport she loves at the highest level possible. Immediately, she wants to perfect her spin thrown and bounce ball on the court.
Outside of goalball, Shavon likes to make music. She looks up to her mother. “To me, [my mother] is the definition of strength.”
Birthdate: February 27, 1990
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Current Residence: Fort Wayne, Ind.
High School: The New York Institute for the Blind ‘09
College: Kings Borough Community College
Motto: “Live and let live.”
Favorite cheat food: Good Chinese food
2016 USABA Goalball National Champions – 1st
Connect with Shavon on Twitter: @shaytaylorx3
Rio 2016 Paralympic medalist, Eliana Mason was introduced to goalball at a sports camp at the Washington State School for the Blind when she was 14 years old. A few months after giving the sport a try in Portland with members of the Women’s National Goalball Team, Eliana was invited to practice regularly with national team members and became very good at the sport.
“It’s not just a sport I enjoy playing, it is a passion and something that defines who I am. It is a game where I can compete on an equal playing field. It eliminates vision from the equation entirely. It’s a chance for me to work as an athlete to achieve my fullest potential and grow as a teammate and as an individual.”
Born with cataracts, Eliana’s lenses were removed but doctors were unable to replace them. She also lives with Glaucoma but that doesn’t stop her from doing her best at everything she puts her mind to. She’s got a supportive family that helps her strive for the best too. “I thank my supportive family, but specifically, my parents. They have always pushed me to work harder and have believed in my dream to make a Paralympic team. Weekly, my dad would work with me on throwing. My parents watch me play every chance they get and support the team by providing transportation and helping out at practice. I wouldn’t be the person or the athlete I am today without the love and support of my parents and their unwavering belief in my ability to accomplish anything I put my mind to.”
Eliana looks up to her father who instilled his love for sports in her at a young age. “[My dad] is one of the hardest working, dedicated and supportive people I know. His love for sports was what originally pushed me into wanting to be an athlete. He has taught me what it takes to give your all and not quite once you’ve started something.”
Birthdate: September 1, 1995
Hometown: Beaverton, Ore.
Current Residence: Fort Wayne, Ind.
High School: International School of Beaverton High School
College: Portland State University, Psychology (minor: Public Health)
Motto: “I can and I will.”
Favorite cheat food: Fresh out of the oven chocolate chip cookies
Rio 2016 Paralympic Games – bronze
Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games – silver
2014 IBSA Wold Goalball Championships – gold
Connect with Eliana on Instagram: @elianaamarieee