A new coach, a couple of veteran players mixed with a fresh younger team, together with a new defensive system means that the defending women’s bronze medallists the USA are fired up, ready for Tokyo 2020.
Having competed in the Rio 2016 and London 2012 Paralympics, Amanda Dennis and her team are using the delay to the next Games to their advantage.
“The Tokyo postponement has enabled us to start a new journey with new ideas that we need to mesh with and learn from. These will help our team reach new feats. We now have more time to develop some talents, get closer as a team to enable us to reach our peak”.
Team USA are fully immersed in preparation, making sure everyone maintains their fitness and strength. “This year, we were beginning to be the team that we wanted to be in order to reach our podium goals and training for Tokyo was on track. But despite not being able to train together, we’ve been able to roll with the punches and adapt.”
Describing herself as a “spunky people person” Dennis was drawn to goalball almost 20 years ago after her parents signed her up to a sports camp that specialised in sports for the visually impaired. “I’d tried soccer after seeing my big brother play, but when I went onto the field I realised I couldn’t see anything and didn’t want to do sports anymore. After my parents signed me up for camp, this was a real turning point and I fell in love with goalball, because it offered equality and the draw was that you were able to work in a team.
“Goalball has had a huge impact on my life and I’ve met some amazing people. It’s offered me a way to compete with my peers and helped me really learn and accept my disability. I didn’t grow up around a lot of blind or visually impaired people, so it was quite hard for me around friends and even some family members to tell them about my blindness. Goalball helped me become comfortable with the fact that I can’t see”.
Catching the Goalball bug, a seven-year-old Dennis wanted to continue. “Luckily for me, it was easy to get involved with goalball in Atlanta and despite the practice ground not being close to where I lived, my parents drove me there an hour each week to support my sports endeavours. And that means so much to me - even today,” she said proudly.
“I believe starting young gave me the confidence to be who I am. I’m really passionate about promoting sport to other visually impaired and blind people. I can honestly say, Goalball has made me the person I am today.”
Dennis is also one of the sports few left handed players, something she had to adapt to at first. “Being left-handed is different, but it's also really special. It’s an advantage because people aren’t really used to the way that someone left-handed throws. When I learned the sport, no one taught me how to throw left-handed because they only worked with right handed players, so I had to learn how to do everything that way. One day, I switched to throwing left-handed and there was no going back. I am forever grateful to coach [Jake] Czechowski, because he always encouraged me to embrace being a lefty - because he is too!
With her experience, talent and positive attitude, Dennis is looking forward to her third Paralympics.
“Rio is probably my career highlight so far because we all worked really hard. Since then, we’ve worked tremendously hard on our team chemistry, which has helped us in many ways. When we play now, you know what someone else is going to do without even saying anything - it’s like being psychic.
“We are a strong team and come together to achieve great things. Our tenacity and our perseverance to have tunnel vision - putting the bad experiences behind us and turning it into amazing experience continue to drive us to our peak. So, we aim to win gold in Tokyo 2021.
As Tokyo creeps ever slower, the team is spending their time learning from the past and building a new legacy. They bounced back from disappointment at the last IBSA Goalball World Championships in 2018 where they lost their title, to win silver at the Parapan American Games in 2019. They also finished on the podium at a home international in Fort Wayne, Indiana, last year.
“One thing that our team has changed in recent years is that we approach every team we play as our toughest team, we don’t care what their experience level is, or even their win/loss record. We look at every team the same”.
Dennis also admits to being superstitious, something that her teammates have come to love about her. “I remember in Rio, or even at the Worlds in 2014, that I never let us wear the same jersey again if we lost in it, as I believe it brought bad luck. It’s not always about the jersey, but it can't be a coincidence that we lost to the same team pretty badly in the same jersey two years later!” she laughs.
Dennis clearly has a busy few months ahead as she juggles training with studying for a Masters in Business Administration and being in a new marriage to German goalball player Michael Feistle (now a Dennis). But, she’s taking it all in her stride.
“I’m a true multi-tasker at heart and I learned how to deal with being busy and competing when I was younger. Now, it's really just second nature to me, I wouldn’t know what to do if I had a free moment!”.
Goalball competitions at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics will take place at the Makuhari Messe Hall C from 25 August, with the medal matches held on 3 September.