The “USA” chants that boomed Tuesday out of the sea of red, white and blue at Turnstone will never get old for five-time Paralympian and US women's goalball member Lisa Czechowski.
A packed house filled Plassman Athletic Center to watch the U.S. take on China in the gold medal match of the International Blind Sports Federation international qualifier.
“It was such an honor to have it here and a privilege,” Czechowski said. “The community's support just made it so welcoming. We work hard every day with the staff here at Turnstone, and to show our community of Fort Wayne what we do and how play is a really great feeling.”
A defensive battle ensued on the main court, with China edging out the U.S., 5-3, to take the gold, but both teams accomplished the main goal – qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games next summer.
“It was a great team that we were facing, China, and we knew it was going to be a great battle; the girls played their hearts out,” coach Jake Czechowski said. “China got a couple of bounces; we got a couple of crossbars and in a game like this that's the difference.”
The U.S. women had a productive showing, finishing the tournament with a 4-1-1 record and a huge weight lifted off its shoulders.
“It's a relief,” Lisa Czechowski said. “We've worked hard to get to where we are right now, and now we start our preparations for Tokyo. The road to Tokyo has begun.”
But Jake Czechowski knows that wasn't an easy road for his team, which will look to surpass the bronze medal the U.S. won in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“This team is so tough and so gritty and that's a direct result of them making a conscious decision to put a lot of things aside,” he said. “We miss birthdays, anniversaries, vacations. These girls decided at the beginning of the year that they were going to give it everything they had. To go out there day in and day out through that long grind of a season and achieve what we did is a huge success.”
A women's roster flooded with veteran talent features a rookie at this level,
Shavon Lockhardt, who was just trying to soak the atmosphere in. While rosters for Tokyo won't be officially named for months, Lockhardt, a member of the goalball resident program at Turnstone, has a shot at making her dream a reality.
“That means everything to me,” Lockhardt said of being a Paralympian. “It's a dream of mine to be a Paralympian and I'm going to try my best to make it happen.”
In the men's qualifier, Lithuania defeated Turkey 7-3 to win the gold.
The U.S. men finished fifth at the qualifier and still have work to do to get back to the Games and build off the silver medal they won in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Both U.S. teams will compete in the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru, which run Aug. 23-Sept. 1.
The women can use it to prep for next summer, but the men must qualify.
“We don't have to worry about that qualification aspect,” Jake Czechowski said. “We can go out there, bring a couple of my younger athletes out and have some of our veterans get some well-deserved rest, and we'll go out there and look forward to winning that championship.”