In spring and summer 2021, Paralympic goalball medalist John Kusku consulted on Camp T’s new recreation center. At the end of August, Kusku and the USA men’s goalball team traveled to Tokyo to compete in the rescheduled 2020 Paralympics.
Goalball is specifically designed for individuals who are Blind/Visually Impaired (BVI). Each team is made up of three players wearing eye coverings to maintain an equal lack of sight. During the game, players attempt to throw or roll a ball into the other team’s goal. Bells embedded in the ball help players locate the ball as it is moving.
After returning from Tokyo, Kusku sat down to answer a few questions about his experience with the team in Tokyo.
Tell us about how it went in Tokyo. How did your team place?
The USA men’s goalball team finished fourth at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. We finished third out of five teams during the round-robin pool play stage, beating Brazil and Algeria and losing to Japan and Lithuania. Our quarterfinal match was against Ukraine, and we won the game 5-4 in the first throw of overtime! Unfortunately, we lost our semifinal game to China and lost the bronze medal game to Lithuania.
There are about 100 men’s goalball teams in the world that try to qualify for the Paralympics, so there is a lot to be proud of in finishing fourth. However, being so close to a medal and walking away with a participation certificate feels very disappointing.
How did you feel about your performance and/or the team’s performance?
Finishing fourth out of about one hundred teams fighting to go to and compete in the Paralympics is an incredible performance. My teammates and I showed many moments of outstanding play, including great defensive stops and fantastic goals scored. We came together as a team in many difficult moments and supported one another when we could have pointed fingers and allowed negative feelings to fester.
One major setback we fought with was an injury to Tyler [Merren] in our first game. He came out of the game about halfway through and did not play again in the tournament. I am certain it was very difficult for him. He and his family have made countless sacrifices so Tyler can train to be one of the best players in the world. To make it to the Paralympics and be able to only play in the first game was surely devastating, but he stayed positive and supportive throughout the games.
Overall, this performance has made all of us very hungry to finish better in Paris in three years.
How did you modify your training in the past year due to COVID-19? What has that process been like compared to previous years?
The USA goalball residency program is in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This is where practices happen several times per week for players who live locally. In previous years, I would visit about once per month for a weekend of training. Also, I would compete in about one tournament per month from January through July, with a couple tournaments spread out through the other months. The global pandemic shut all of that down for me. I missed out on a lot of goalball court time.
On the other hand, I do all of my personal training at my home. I have an extensive collection of strength and conditioning equipment, as well as a lane in my basement that is large enough for me to practice throwing and diving. So, overall, my individual training was not affected. I was able to squeeze in a few goalball practices with my Michigan teammates at our practice site in Farmington Hills, Michigan. We wore masks at all times, which made playing goalball much more challenging. Playing in tournaments without wearing a mask was much easier than practicing with a mask on. This might be somewhat similar to athletes training at altitude to give them an advantage in competition.
What were some highlights from the competition in Tokyo, or from your performance?
I can think of two highlights for me and our team:
First, we defeated Brazil in our first game of the tournament. That was the first time Brazil lost a game of goalball since the semifinals in Rio de Janeiro five years ago. Our team played extremely well, and I was very honored and proud to come into the game early in the second half to play shutout defense!
The other highlight was our overtime win in the quarterfinals against Ukraine. We were losing 3-1 during the middle part of the game, and we came back to tie it 4-4. In goalball, the first goal scored in overtime ends the game. During our team meeting just before the start of overtime, my teammate Callahan [Young] said that he would end the game on the first throw—and he did just that, scoring a scorcher between the center and left wing of Ukraine. That goal gave us a victory and a path into the finals. Had we lost that game, we would have been knocked out of the tournament and sent home from the Paralympics early.