Paris 2024 Qualification Is On The Line This Month For U.S. Goalball Teams
by Sean Shapiro
The most recent Paralympic Games left a “so close, yet so far” feeling for both of Team USA’s goalball squads.
The men’s team, thanks to a comeback victory in the quarterfinals, reached the medal round two years ago at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 but lost in the semifinals and then again in the bronze-medal game, just missing out on an opportunity to medal in back-to-back Paralympics after winning silver in 2016.
The women’s team went a step further, taking the silver medal in Tokyo after earning bronze five years earlier at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, but a loss to Turkey in the final left the Americans just shy of reaching the top of the podium for the first time since 2008.
With the short quad, redemption is now only one year away at the Paralympic Games Paris 2024, and both U.S. teams could secure their spots there with a win at the 2023 IBSA World Games, being held Aug. 18-27 in Birmingham, England.
“With only one Paralympic bid available, the environment at the IBSA World Games will be more intense than ever,” U.S. women’s coach Jake Czechowski said in the team’s roster announcement. “That is a huge advantage for us because the bigger the stage, the better we typically play.”
Goalball is one of the rare Paralympic sports that doesn’t have an able-bodied equivalent. In the sport, two teams of three line up in front of goals that span the width of the court, with the object being to score by throwing the ball past your opponents.
Athletes are visually impaired, and the ball has a rattle in it, which the players use to locate and try to stop shots that are rolled and bounced in at upwards of 40 mph.
Team USA has enjoyed a decorated history in the sport. No country has even half as many Paralympic medals as the 13 won by the U.S. teams — three gold, six silver, four bronze.
However, qualifying is harder than it used to be.
In 2021, the International Paralympic Committee reduced the number of teams for Paris to eight per gender, after it had been 10 in the previous two Paralympics. France is automatically entered as host, while Turkey and South Korea (women) and Brazil and China (men) qualified based on their performances at the 2022 world championships. The fourth team in each tournament will be named in Birmingham.
“With the number of teams going down, these qualifications are getting more difficult to attain,” U.S. men’s coach Keith Young said. “But it should make for an entertaining, high-stakes tournament, especially with only the winner effectively getting that bid.”
Both U.S. teams combine veteran experience with a few key newcomers.
On the women’s side, the indefatigable Lisa Czechowski and Asya Miller have been Team USA mainstays since the Paralympic Games Sydney 2000 and are looking to secure their seventh Paralympics appearance together (both also competed, and won a medal, in track in Sydney).
Amanda Dennis is another focal point of the team, a three-time Paralympian already and considered one of the best players in the world. Fellow returnees from the Tokyo silver-medal team Eliana Mason and Mindy Cook are back, while 2024 hopeful Megan Jensen rounds out the team in Birmingham.
The U.S. women enter the tournament as the world’s second-ranked team. In Pool A they will face Brazil, Canada, Finland, Ukraine, Germany and Denmark. Japan, ranked No. 3 in the world, is the top-seeded team in Pool B.
The Americans, Japan and Israel are considered favorites in the tournament.
The men’s team is led by Tyler Merren, a four-time Paralympian and two-time medalist, who is joined by Matt Simpson, Zach Buhler and Calahan Young as returnees from the 2020 Paralympics. Paris hopefuls Christian King and Sean Walker round out the roster.
For the men’s team this tournament is a chance to build on a gold medal won at the Berlin Nations Cup in June. It’s also an opportunity for the team to finally show what it can do when healthy. The Americans were missing both Young and Buhler due to injury at the 2022 world championships, where they failed to make it out of group play.
“It’s nice to be back with the team healthy,” coach Young said. “We’ve had good build up, and I think it’s feeling pretty confident as a group after our win (in Berlin). That was a good reminder for us of where we are in the world. Being able to have players fully healthy, it’s exciting.”
The American men, ranked No. 4 in the world by IBSA, are the top-ranked team in Pool Y and will play Turkey, Iran, Ukraine, Argentina, Greece and Australia in group play. Lithuania, ranked No. 2 in the world, is the favorite in Pool X. The Lithuanians join Turkey and Team USA as the favorites to earn the Paris bid.
If the U.S. teams fall short this month in England, they’ll have one more opportunity to qualify at the 2023 Parapan American Games set for November in Chile.