By Lithuanian Paralympic Committee and IBSA
Reigning Paralympic champions Lithuania have departed for the 2019 International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) Goalball and Judo International Qualifier in Fort Wayne, USA, under new coach Valdas Gecevičius.
Lithuania, who are hoping to secure a top two finish in order to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, will compete in group A. They will play relative newcomers Argentina, Canada, Czech Republic, Greece, Sweden and Turkey in the preliminary rounds.
The International Qualifier is the first major test for Gecevičius who took over the national team just three months ago. Is he nervous?
“I don't think about it yet, I try to leave these ideas on the side. Obviously there will be tension, but it is natural. But it is for me to deal with it first, otherwise the tension will be passed on to the players. In addition, there is still some time left. Let's go, train, acclimatize and everything will be fine. There is no excitement yet.”
The team that won Paralympic gold in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, in 2016, has changed a lot in three years.
Genrik Pavliukianec and Mindaugas Suchovejus have retired and Gecevičius is the second coach since Karolis Levickis retired after Rio 2016.
Gecevičius spoke about his own style of coaching and what he brings to the team:
“I think we have managed to bring together a team where one is for everyone, and all for one. It applies everywhere and always: traveling, communicating, training, playing. This is the main thing that has been done. There is a feeling of being in communication, helping each other while traveling, encouraging each other during the match. Of course, everything is happening, but here is the sport that is always accompanied by emotions.”
It is not just Gecevičius who thinks that things have changed in the Lithuanian camp – and just in time. The team missed one opportunity to qualify for Tokyo 2020 when they failed to make it onto the podium at the 2018 IBSA Goalball World Championships, finishing fourth.
If they fail to win gold or silver in Fort Wayne, all their hopes will rest on winning the European title in Rostock, Germany, in October.
Player Mantas Panavos said: "The team has really changed. The trainer is strict, demanding, aware of what he wants. I think this is very important for the team. I think the team atmosphere has changed. The coach came from a team sport and it feels like it. He made the team spirit that was somewhat lacking in the past. It's fun and good. I think it happened in a timely manner.”
And it is not just the atmosphere that has changed. Lithuania have started to play differently too.
"I think we will be a more mobile team, we will move more, we will attack not only from our own but also from the positions of our teammate,” Mantas Brazauski, another player, said. “Workouts have increased. Many teams in the world and in Europe are not playing statically, players are moving. We will try to play this way. We have been working on it.”
"If America fails and everything is left to Germany, I think we should have even more anger to go to the European Championship and win that first place and the ticket. Still, all the hopes and all our expectations are put into the tournament in America now,” Panavos said.
Brazauskis agrees: “We must take this opportunity. We're going to America to return home with medals and a ticket to Tokyo.”
More than 600 athletes, coaches and team staff from 40 countries will descend on Fort Wayne for the 2019 International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) Goalball and Judo International Qualifier aiming to secure places for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Goalball gets underway on Tuesday (2 July) with the first group matches. The quarterfinals and placement games will take place on 8 July followed by the medal matches one day later.
The action will be shown live on the IBSA Goalball Facebook pages as well as IBSA’s YouTube channel.
Schedules and results can be found at www.ibsafortwayne2019.com