The Goalball Team. There Are No Weekends for These Men
A small room, where old yet frequently used training equipment and a bench for barbell lifting stands. It has only a few small windows, but the sunrays that shine through them are enough to light up all the medals, cups, pins, letters of appreciation, commemorative flags, and any other sports award one could imagine.
Some cups are covered by others, awards barely fit on the shelves. In the middle of the room sits Karolis Levickis, coach of Lithuanian goalball team and one of the most important people here, responsible for many of those shiny awards surrounding him. “I’m tired,” sighs Karolis.
From the end of the rectangular court, an athlete throws a huge ball that weighs 1.25 kilo. The ball tumbles towards the opponents’ side at the speed of 65 kilometres per hour. The opponents have less than a second to throw themselves towards the ball and block it; otherwise the former team will score. But the most important fact here is that none of the players are able to see.
This is goalball, the sports game that is gaining popularity with the blind and partially sighted people. In 24 minutes, two teams of three players each, wearing special eyewear that blocks all sight, have to throw the ball into their opponents’ goal. In order to win, athletes have to use senses rarely used in other sports to such extent. There are bells inside the ball, so they have to hear it, and the court borders and team zones are marked by a raised strip, so they have to feel it by touch.
Although the game is largely unknown in Lithuania, it is this Paralympic event that Lithuania is most famous for. Year after year, Lithuanian goalball players have been winning various awards, getting into the top spots of international ratings, and their names have been cited by their rival coaches when ironing out strategies. In the international goalball tournament in July, where a lot of strong teams participated, Lithuania became champions. To be precise, champions and runners-up, for Lithuania was represented by two teams, “Lithuania 1” and “Lithuania 2”.
To breathe sport
For almost 12 years now, Karolis Levickis has been working as a coach of this even locally not well-known team of blind and partially sighted players. It was the Lithuanian goalball team under his supervision that won silver in the 2008 Paralympics. Karolis also worked with the six best goalball players in Lithuania, preparing them for the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Games. It is hard to believe that Karolis, who now radiates such determination to win and requires it from his players, became coach by accident. “I didn’t know anything about goalball, I hadn’t worked with physically impaired people before, so I learned it all here, by watching them play and experiencing it live,” says Karolis.
To watch the game in order to understand it is no longer a must for Karolis. The coach can tell every single mistake, playing technique, or team’s strategy from smallest details. No movement of his players goes unnoticed, none of their useful qualities remain unused. Karolis knows that currently it is hard to surprise him with strategic intricacies, so good preparation is most important. “Not only in sport, but in life, too, I am a person that has plans A, B, and C. Opponents have their secrets, at least they try to come up with them, but when you’ve been in this for a longer time, those secrets aren’t really secrets anymore,” explains Karolis.
Seeing Karolis work with the team during tournaments and training sessions, it is obvious that he is also a player, that his life is play. All Karolis’ reactions to mistakes or successful throws are emotional, and conversations with players during critical moments are inspiring and motivational. To build this sort of feeling and connection with players takes not only time but talent, too. The fact that he was once a track-and-field runner helped him. “I was a runner for ten years and I did that for the results. I ran in order to try myself, running was my life. Those seconds were my life, and I trained without getting anything back,” tells Karolis.
Coach Levickis jestingly mentions that, during his first years as goalball coach, he tried running everywhere. There were days when Karolis would run to work, then to the running training session, and later to meet his goalball team. His players would laugh when they heard Karolis opening his packed lunch. Everything changed when Karolis went to run in Japan and experienced an injury there. His rehabilitation time was devoted to goalball, which became Karolis’ main job, but devotion to this Paralympic sport had its price.
“I deprived my family of a lot. I lived with goalball, and my family and kids were put on the other shelf. Finally I understood that one day goalball may disappear, but my family will stay,” sighs Karolis. It is easy to see exhaustion and bitterness in his eyes, for his work training this team takes a lot of precious time which could be spent with his wife and two sons. Finally Karolis mentions that these could be his last Paralympic Games as coach of Lithuanian goalball team. “It can be said that, during this stage of my life, I am learning how to be a father,” adds Karolis, softly smiling.
To prepare the best
Before Rio Karolis’ goal was is to be perfectly ready for the Paralympics and pull through the really strong group Lithuania will play in. That, in turn, meant two heavy training sessions every day, working with the elements of the game, adjustment of food supplements, and physical exercise. Karolis ensures that “our athletes don’t have weekends.” His words are sometimes stern, but they seem to always hit the spot, and the players, people of diverse characters, work their fingers to the bone for the good of the team. Karolis explains that when striving for something specific, his temper is strong, and the support, even though always nice, is not always necessary. “If I have my mind set on something, I don’t care what others say, if they support me or not,” says Karolis surely, keeping his typical tongue-in-cheek.
His team practices on the pitch of Šaltinis Goalball Club, which is used for basketball, too. When you come here it becomes painfully clear that, quite opposite to what Karolis says, some financial help for the best goalball players would be really helpful. Karolis has to plan the time of every training session, because they share this pitch with amateur basketball players. The only place where Lithuanian goalball team can train does not belong to them. Once, interested in how Lithuanians get ready for their games, American goalball players came to see their opponents here. They were amazed at what they saw: this small pitch with even smaller room for old and scarce equipment. But the national team did not have time to think about this. They had to make the best of what they have. Members of the team, although blind or partially sighted, positioned themselves quickly in this space and friendly shared whatever limited inventory they had.
Karolis‘ work format as a coach is not much different from those who work with abled people. According to him, it is only particularities. Every single one of us has desire to win and some kind of talent, he says, which is often wasted because we do not find our direction. This is very important when it comes to physically impaired, who often feel forgotten and shut themselves off the outer world. “Sometimes talent or hobby is pushed into the shade. It doesn’t matter if it’s sport or, let’s say, photography. Something may look like a girly thing to do or like a waste of time, but if we only knew how to stimulate those hobbies and activities, it would come in handy,” says Karolis and points out that what is really needed now is some sort of centre for children with disabilities, where their hobbies and activities would be cultivated.
Nowadays, most Lithuania’s goalball players find out about this sport through the Lithuanian School for Blind and Partially Sighted. This is also how all of the six players of this Paralympics team came together: Genrik Pavliukianec, Mantas Panovas, Mindaugas Suchovejus, Justas Pažarauskas, Nerijus Montvydas, and Mantvydas Brazauskis. And even though each of them have their own different experiences and stories, Karolis knows each of them well and tries to take the middle ground when communicating and training them. “When you have been in this for that many years, you’re family. And a lot of things happen in families. Sometimes we get tired of each other emotionally, but finally we miss each other and come back,” laughs Karolis.
“Firstly I’d like to take a break, and then see what happens later. I feel tired of goalball. I’d like to start everything from the very beginning, turn a new page, maybe take in children without any experience. I usually train someone who already have played something else before, so their skills have to be applied in this game,” talks Karolis of his goal. It is not hard to understand that however dear this team is for him, a wife and two sons are waiting for him, and Karolis’ family is becoming his priority.
Justas Pažarauskas. The Lefty
Team members describe him as the embodiment of serenity. Justas Pažarauskas plays a very special role in the court. According to coach Levickis, Justas is hard on the opponents, for he is left-handed. His throws are hard to stop, their trajectory is different, they even sound different.
Just like most goalball players in Lithuania, Justas found out about this sport while still in school, his first training session happened in the 6th grade. “My first impression was that this sport was quite weird, especially the outfits and those puffy pants,” remembers Justas.
He lost his sight when he was 11 years old, by accident, while working the looms. “I was just a child, I didn’t know anything. I thought that I might be able to see again someday, that it’s just temporary. I had hope,” tells Justas.
After the accident, Justas still went to an ordinary school for a year, but later moved to Vilnius to study at the School for Blind and Partially Sighted. After that he got a job which he still does when he is not playing goalball. Justas is an instructor at the library for blind people.
“I try to be calm when entering the court, and if I have a feeling that another player is nervous, I give him a tap on the shoulder and convince him that we can focus and continue the game,” tells Justas. His personality is also valued by other team members. A few of them mentioned that the calm of Justas helps them concentrate. “It’s really hard to play when you’re constrained or full of negative thoughts. Then it’s time to sit on the bench,” explains Justas.
Nerijus Montvydas. The Sniper
Apart from playing goalball, Nerijus is self-employed as a masseur. According to coach Levickis, his role is important, that of a sniper. The goal of this player is to enter the court, earn a point with a well-aimed throw, and come back to the bench. Coach’s work here is also important as he has to decide when to place Nerijus into the game.
Nerijus describes himself as a stubborn, persistent, and meticulous person. He has never regretted the moment back in school, when a coach invited him to a goalball practice. „I like team sports. I‘ve also tried individual disciplines, but there you fight only for yourself, and here, you fight for your friends, too,“ says Nerijus.
Nerijus went blind due to inborn ilness. „I remember colours, things, cities. Even now, if I know what this or that thing is, I can imagine its colour. But to orientate in the city is a bit harder, so my wife has to drive me everywhere,“ tells Nerijus.
Nerijus said Rio did not make him nervous at all. It seems he does not really understand the word “nervous”: “You have to think that you will fight and tear your opponents to pieces. These Games will be my third, so I don‘t burden my head with unnecessary thoughts anymore.”
Mantas Brazauskis. The Rock in Defense
Currently graduating in law at Mykolas Romeris University, Mantas Brazauskis is exceptionally sturdy in sports, too. Even though his throw is not very strong, he is irreplaceable in the centre position. But, however confident Mantas feels in the court, his life could have taken quite a different turn. “In school, I was quite a singer, I graduated from music school, and everybody liked my singing,” remembers Mantas.
Mantas is not completely blind. He distinguishes colours. A lot depends on the lighting: the more light there is in a room or outside, the better his orientation and distinction of different things. But he also needs the white cane, especially in autumn and winter. “I always carry the cane with me, so that when I accidentally bump into someone, I wouldn’t be considered a fool. People recognise the cane and get the situation,” explains Mantas.
He laughs when asked if he has any personal talismans or prejudices: “I don’t have any talismans, and when my beard is too long, I shave it. I like to spend my time peacefully and listen to music, which is a big part of my life.” Even though Mantas’ life is related to goalball, his love for music is still there. One can often notice earphones in his ears during the training sessions, as well as a playlist titled “Music for Sport” in his MP3 player.
“I dream of gold before every single game. But this time our opponents in the group are possible medalists of the Paralympic Games. This is a suicide group, and we have to somehow get past it,” Mantas said of the Rio Paralympics.
Mindaugas Suchovejus. The Universal
Bright red Manchester United t-shirt and a fullcap with an identical logo. That is how you will notice Mindaugas among other players. A fan of rap, hip-hop, and football: that describes him best.
“I’ve tried a lot of things. Judo, track-and-field, chess, but I liked goalball the most because it’s a team sport and you can all fight for each other,” says Mindaugas. He can play any position in the court, and outside of it, he raps and creates music together with fellow team member Mantas Panovas.
When he was born, Mindaugas could see, although poorly. Now he can only distinguish darkness from light, and that, Mindaugas says, is a lot. “When I wake up in the morning I can see that the sun is shining. If I were to one day lose that, too, life would be even harder,” says Mindaugas calmly.
These Paralympics were the first ones for Mindaugas. He says that it is a dream coming true. Even though he admits that before the games he thought of medals, the very fact of playing in the Paralympics made Mindaugas happy. “We can start dreaming of gold when we start playing. You cannot think about it right away, there is a long road to walk,” he admitted.
Mantas Panovas. The Unbreakable
“Unbreakable machine” is how coach Levickis describes this player. Usually, Mantas Panovas sits alone in the dressing room. Silent and focused, he spends a lot of time preparing for the match psychologically.
Goalball became a part of Mantas’ life in 2007 when he was studying at the Lithuanian Education Centre for Blind and Partially Sighted. Before that, Mantas did track-and-field, but once upon a time a geography teacher, who was also a coach of the school’s goalball team, came up to him and offered him to join the team. “At first it was a bit scary, because the ball is not light. Sometimes I had to take on really painful throws, but time passed and I got used to it,” says Mantas.
Strength is this player’s exclusive quality. Mantas is fast, well prepared physically, and, when focused, can play very well. His throws are among the strongest in the team. Before every game he spends a lot of time imagining situations and the overall game process. He says he sometimes even dreams of goalball. “Very often I play goalball in my dreams. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but it is very realistic. This sport has become part of my life and now even part of my subconscious,” explains Mantas.
He can only see with the corners of his eyes, there’s only flicker in the middle. When looking around or searching for specific things, Mantas is using various angles, but sometimes it is not enough for recognising people. “Once I and my wife were cleaning up at the cemetery, and I thought that we were alone there. When I went to throw out the trash and started walking up the stairs, I saw a person coming towards me. I thought it was my wife, so I asked her where she’s going, and all I got from her was ‘none of your business.’ Apparently, it wasn’t my wife,” laughs Mantas.
Genrik Pavliukianec. The Leader
He is the old-timer of the national team, playing goalball since the Independence of Lithuania; he is also the loudest, filling the court with his jokes. That is Genrik. As the oldest and the one who played in four Paralympics, he helps the team in the court as well as emotionally. Genrik’s experience is invaluable in both offence and defence.
“Once I walked into the gym and saw older students rolling a ball. It seemed boring. But I became interested during my next visit. I liked it because it’s a team sport. I couldn’t play basketball because of my sight, so I chose goalball,” Genrik remembers his getting acquainted with goalball. He started playing goalball when it was still known as blind hockey and played not on special ground, but on wooden floor. Eyewearwas different than the one players use today, as it used to be made of fabric.
At the moment Genrik can see very little. Strength of sight in a healthy person is 100%, and Genrik’s is only 1,5%. “I don’t know how to explain this to you. If a thing is one or two meters away from me, maybe I will be able to see it. But if it’s further away, I cannot describe it,” says Genrik. His eye nerve has been atrophying since the early days of his childhood, so his disability is still progressing. “When I’ll be old, I’ll be a real grandpa. Blind,” laughs Genrik.
Genrik thinks of himself as a stubborn person, and it looks like this feature will be useful, as these were probably his last Paralympics. Nevertheless, when asked if he dreamt of medals, Genrik answered in his typical manner that he does not exaggerate it: “Win, lose, life will go on anyway. All I know is that I really want to win.”
Gold is not at hand
Taking a direct hit from a goalball hurts, but losing hurts more. In the Beijing Paralympics, a silly mistake left medals out of Lithuanian hands; before Rio, it seemed, there was no time for mistakes. For Genrik and coach Levickis, the old-timers of the team, these Paralympics may have been the last ones, and coming back without medals after a series of victories in various championships and tournaments would have been disappointing. However, the players were well-prepared and they had been winning for a while now, so the victory felt very close. “If everything will go as planned, our team will be focused and play like we always do, I guarantee you medals,” ensured Genrik.
A striking contrast could be easily seen between the mood of the team during the training sessions and the atmosphere that the media shrowded them with before the games. After so many successful years and tournaments, everybody was ready to put the medals on the necks of Karolis’ team ahead of time, and, even though it added a lot of confidence, such praise could have also made the situation more difficult. “Before London, everybody thought we’ll just go there and bring gold, but it doesn’t really go that way,” explained Mantas Panovas emotionally.
Hard training sessions and purposeful preparation for Rio: those were the thoughts of Karolis’ team, and, according to Panovas, there was no other way but this. Before the games he told us that: “There’s no need to rush. We have to work towards victory one step at a time. Most think that we just need to stretch out our hand and pick the gold medal. That’s not what’s going to happen. What awaits us in Rio are a tough group and difficult matches. We have to be prepared for everything, but, if we win the quarterfinal, I think we’ll be okay.”
Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
Lithuanian goalball team managed to get out of their group without losses and became the first Lithuanian goalball team to win gold medals in the paralympic games.
The leader of the team, Genrikas, is retiring from the sport, while long-term coach Karolis is still unsure whether he’ll continue training the national goalball team.