by Ryan Lucas
Track back to last July, when close ties half a world apart led to interrelated moments of joy. The United States Women’s National Goalball Team had just celebrated a gold medal performance at the 2014 International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) Goalball World Championships in Espoo, Finland. Undismayed after three losses in its first four games, the squad rallied to secure its fifth consecutive medal at worlds and first gold medal at the event since 2002, thereby qualifying for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Goalball is a Paralympic sport played by athletes who are blind and visually impaired. Developed after World War I as a way to keep blinded veterans physically active, it has become the premiere team game for blind athletes. Played competitively by men and women around the world, it is a very fast-paced, physically challenging, strategic and exciting game.
All the while, far beyond the shores of Scandinavia, across the vast span of the North Atlantic Ocean, almost to the western edge of the continental U.S., Lisa Czechowski cradled another sort of victory of a lifetime: as her teammates grasped their golden hardware more than 5,500 miles away, she reveled in the brand-new beauty of her first child, Jay.
“It was difficult but yet not difficult,” Czechowski said of missing the world goalball championships to stay in Tucson, Ariz., where she and her husband, Jacob, an assistant coach on the team, reside. “After [the] London [2012 Paralympic Games] I knew I wanted to have a child, and I just felt at the time that worlds happened, we also had this incredible blessing. Plus my teammates were able to take care of business, so that was really nice.”
Jay was born on July 2, and the team won the tournament on July 5. Between giving birth and resting, Czechowski also embraced her temporary role as a fan, a position she gave up soon thereafter to tweak out the kinks in her game and return to competition form.
“Their performance just really accelerated and peaked at the right time in Finland,” she said of her teammates, who defeated Russia in the championship match. “I obviously wasn’t there, but I caught all the games via the Internet, and it was pretty awesome to watch.”
Making a Necessary Sacrifice
For many Paralympic and Olympic athletes, time at the elite level is like a slice of light visible in a narrow window. For the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games, for instance, the average age of Team USA participants was 26 years old.
But Czechowski, 35, who aims to compete in her fifth Paralympic Games in 2016 — having also served as a goalball alternate in 1996, as well as having won a silver medal in the women’s discus at the Sydney 2000 Games — the view through the glass face of biology’s timepiece also contributed to her and her husband’s decision to start a family.
“We had to kind of work with nature as well all along with that,” she said. “After London we knew that we wanted to start a family, and even though it didn’t happen in 2013, nature allowed it to happen in 2014. We wanted to be patient and take advantage of the time. I had full confidence that our team would do well in Finland. They played their best, and I was obviously very excited when they won.”
Within weeks of Jay’s birth, Czechowski had shaped her game back into the mold of an elite athlete.
“I started to ease my way back into it within two months of having him — simple lifting and things like that,” she said. “Now I’ve been able to amp things up and increase weight with the lifting and run harder and faster. I have a lot of good support from Jake and the coaching staff, and that’s what helps everything come to together.”
“She actually worked with our team trainer on a training program throughout her pregnancy and got back full training as soon as she was allowed,” U.S. Women’s National Goalball Team Coach Ken Armbruster said. “At recent camps her offense is close to top of her game, while she’s still catching up with defense and conditioning, which will come in time.”
As a whole, the squad’s dynamics didn’t shift during Czechowski’s leave. One of the team’s longtime veterans, her influence is cemented within the roster.
“I believe everyone supported her decision, and the timing worked out well,” Armbruster said. “In addition to being teammates, Asya [Miller] and Jen [Armbruster] are close friends of Lisa and offered continued encouragement throughout her pregnancy and after Jay was born. [Lisa’s] the ultimate teammate, always having a positive attitude and providing support to the team in whatever is asked of her.”
Now, much like her teammates, Czechowski’s on-the-court efforts are focused on Rio. While the squad’s seventh-place finish during the London 2012 Paralympic Games proved disappointing, the roster is still replete with the pieces from the medal-winning performances — gold at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics, silver at the Athens 2004 Paralympics — of the recent past.
“There isn’t a whole lot that we’ll do differently; honestly, we played well in London, and things just didn’t work out,” Czechowski said. “We’ll keep the same determination and workout regimens. It’s hard to say what we’ll do differently just because of the way the cards fell for us in London. Determination for us will definitely play the biggest factor.”
Defensive work and strategies will also shape the team’s training in the coming months.
“Our goals at competitions are always to work on defense first and have the offense develop, and that won’t change,” Czechowski said. “That’s the phrase that coach usually uses: ‘Defense first, and the offense will be there.’ Team-wise, that’s what always we’re doing, and I think individually everyone has their own plan that they’re working on, too, like workouts and getting stronger for competition and things like that.”
Life beyond Goalball
After Rio, Czechowski and her husband will decide the course of their future, although she believes her playing days will end.
“We’ll probably want to expand our family at some point,” she said. “That’s pretty much it for after Rio.”
Regardless of her direction, people who know Czechowski well allude to her as a paragon of success in all aspects of her life.
While the roots of her passion run deep in the field of sports — she also competed at the collegiate level as a track and field thrower, then honed that talent all the way to the Paralympic medal stand in Sydney, adding to her rarity as a multitalented athlete — she’s accomplished in many areas.
“I’m sure when she retires from playing she’ll stay involved in sport in some form, maybe even return to field events, but no doubt family will remain top priority,” Armbruster said. “It takes a special person to commit and being successful at being both an elite athlete and a working mother, and Lisa is that type of person.”
Beyond goalball, Czechowski said she also plans to continue her work in the non-profit sector. She and Jacob both work at the Southern Arizona Association for the Visually Impaired in Tucson, a situation that enhances the couple’s growth.
“It’s really an amazing opportunity,” Czechowski said of having her husband so immersed in the everyday details of her life, dating back to when they met in July 2004 at a United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) sports camp in Colorado Springs, Colo. “We get to work together on so many levels — competitively, in our marriage, as parents together, in our work together.
“We’re very close because of it; he’s able to give me a ton of support and coaching, and he’s helped me become a better player and a better athlete. We have a very loving relationship because of it.”
And, no matter what happens in Rio, Czechowski and her husband are grateful for their sports achievements together — with goalball in particular.
“I’m very happy about it,” she said of her athletic career. “I really enjoy team sports, and I enjoy playing and competing with the team that we had and still have. I just love team sports, and I’m so happy to have had the opportunities that I’ve had.
“I learned a lot from being a multisport athlete. I loved being a field athlete, and I learned a ton there, but it was great to transition to goalball and keep focus on one sport because it was truly difficult to provide adequate training and attention to two sports. Just focusing on goalball was a smart decision. I just really enjoy the coaches and competing with the ladies on the team.”
In the end, that Czechowski picked goalball over track and field — a move that required a year of overtures from coaches in her New Jersey hometown, as she had constructed an initial wall of resistance to the sport — is a testament to her adaptability and talent. As she enters the probable last stage of her competitive career, she recommends that all athletes with visual impairments should at least try goalball.
“I’m very thankful that my coaches were so persistent in recruiting me to goalball,” she said. “If I gave advice to any athletes who are visually impaired, it would be that they should give goalball a shot. I’ve had such amazing experiences and met so many wonderful people through the sport. Goalball can just open so many opportunities for young athletes, and I’m very grateful for how the game has had such a huge impact on me and helped me achieve so many great things.”
Last July, as her squad celebrated a gold medal half a world away, Czechowski’s life-defining moment of a different kind reiterated how she and her teammates can accomplish anything —both on and off the court.