Written by: Ryan Lucas; Special Contributor
As a group, they earned at least one of every medal, and together, they took a few moments to celebrate and praise each other’s performances; but after the nets came down and the tape came up from the court the USA Goalball Teams redirected their attention from the podium and the sleek neckwear to the next task, The 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. Unlike the clock and the ball in the inimitable sport, time never stops turning in the goalball careers of these athletes.
At the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) 2013 Pan American Games held July 9-15 in Colorado Springs, Colo., the USA Women’s National Goalball Team led the American contingent by winning the Gold Medal and the USA Men’s National Goalball Team collected the Silver Medal in the event hosted by the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA).
Included in The USA Women’s Team current blend of veterans and up-and-comers are Jen Armbruster (Portland, Ore.), Lisa Czechowski (Tucson, Ariz.), Jordan Gist (Fargo, N.D.), Asya Miller (Portland, Ore.), Amanda Dennis (Peachtree, Ga.) and Cathy Morgan (Logan, Utah). The USA Men’s Team features Joe Hamilton (Sacramento, Calif.), Andy Jenks (Wilmington, Del.), John Kusku (Warren, Mich.), Donte’ Mickens (Delray Beach, Fla.), Matt Simpson (Colorado Springs, Colo.) and Daryl Walker (Jacksonville, Fla.). Both teams cemented spots in the IBSA 2014 World Goalball Championships in Finland by finishing in the top two.
Not only did the Pan American teams place, but the USA Boys’ National Team members matched their elders by taking home the Silver Medal in the IBSA 2013 World Youth Championships, and the USA Girls’ National Team received the Bronze Medal.
Each of the USA teams watched their compatriots play throughout the tournament, ever ready to offer support or criticism when necessary. In the unique world of elite athletics, the structure of the program is designed to foster both camaraderie and healthy competition. After watching the USA Girls’ National Team compete all weekend, Women’s Team center Amanda Dennis spoke of the camaraderie, competition and the necessity of being pushed from behind by younger peers with medal-stand talent. “You can tell they have worked together before and have court chemistry,” Dennis, whose defense formed a barricade for her squad in their 2-0 championship victory over Brazil, said of the USA Girls’ Team. She continued to say, “They have a lot going for them in their goalball future, but we are not going to give up our spots. They are going to have to come in and take them!” The USA Girls’ National Team consists of: Vanessa Coleman (Lakeland, Fla.), Marybai Huking (Plain City, Utah), Eliana Mason (Beaverton, Ore.), Cortlinn Pay (Jacksonville, Fla.), Maddy Stafford (Salt Lake City, Utah) and Alexia Steudle (Costa Mesa, Calif.).
As all the American players strengthen their game, the programs can tinker with lineups and tactics, challenging opponents to adjust, but for both sides, continuing the smooth line of fluidity is essential. USA Boys’ National Goalball Team head coach, Matt Boyle (Durham, Calif.), said, “I think our program is getting deeper and deeper. We have a lot more options now than we did six months ago, and I am sure that six months from now we are going to have more options than we do now.” Boyle’s squad, which consists of Abel Del Toro (Fontana, Calif.), Austin Devine (North Miami Beach, Fla.), Nathan Purcell (Ellensburg, Wash.), Joshua Welborn (Pelham, Ala.), Alex Williams (Macomb, Mich.) and Calahan Young (Irwin, Pa.)—is competing on a steady pace of advancement, he said, “Every single one of the boys has been to a training camp with the USA Men’s Team, which prepared them to come into this tournament and play anyone.” He continued, “We saw that in the semifinal game against Brazil; the first time we played them we allowed 11 goals, and the second time we played them we allowed one. That is a pretty big improvement.”
Both the boys and the girls compete with the eagerness to learn and adapt, and the USA Men’s and Women’s coaching staff are always on the lookout for ways in which they can nurture and reward such progress. “Three of the young girls are in my pool, so they go to my camps, and I have actually taken a couple of them overseas with me,” USA Women’s National Team Head Coach Ken Armbruster (Colorado Springs, Colo.) said. “We get them away from home for a week and show them the little things; it is not all on the court, so we have to see how they handle themselves off the court and away from their normal environment, too.” Such enthusiasm for the game develops even earlier than the National Boys’ and Girls’ teams. For example, at 19 years old, Dennis is the youngest athlete among the USA Women, but her experience reaches farther into the past than her age suggests. “I made the youth team when I was 15, and I have been playing goalball since I was 8,” she said. “I started at a sports education camp, which is where most of the girls started. Programs like The USABA youth goalball team’s and sports camps significantly contribute to the future of the women’s and men’s team.”
John Potts, USABA Goalball High Performance Manager, stated that not only will the teams be successful with camaraderie, but the most important aspect is unity. Potts continued, “Unity is achieved through the requite ups and downs and countless practice sessions, team meetings, and tournaments. When everyone in the red, white and blue wins, the programs maintain the level needed for sustained success.” With collective eyes on longevity, the Men’s and Women’s Goalball Teams are striving for greatness come 2014 in Finland, 2016 in Rio, and beyond. As each USA team adds to the stockpile of experience with each tournament and practice, the objectives remain unchanged. “The goal, for both them Men and Women, is to get to Rio and get on the medal stand,” said USA Men’s National Team head coach Mike Lege’ (Elkton, Fla.), “So far, we are on our way.”