Goalfix talks to Tyler Merren, co-captain of the Team USA men’s goalball team.

 

We talk to the veteran goalball star about his rise to the top, the development of the game and his ambition to win gold in Tokyo later this year…

Tyler has been part of the US goalball team since 2001, winning 2 Olympic medals and numerous championships during his time in the team.

But he hadn’t even heard of the sport until he was fifteen, let alone played it.

I went to a sports education camp when I was about 15 years old. And goalball was the one that really jumped out to me.”

Despite never playing before, after his first game at the camp the coach of Michigan’s youth team asked if he would join the team.

The coach came over to me, and said, ‘We go to a tournament in Florida every year. I’d like you to be on the team.’ I was like, Wow, you guys go all the way to Florida to play this. I’d never really left Michigan.

It just went from there. And two years later I made the USA team so it snowballed pretty quickly.”

 

Listen to the full interview below, or carry on reading for a shorter text version.

 

 

The conditions to thrive

Tyler grew up on a farm in Southwest Michigan, USA. He wasn‘t diagnosed with legal blindness until the age of 13 years old.

Until that point he’d always wondered why he’d found reading something of a challenge, but living in a rural setting with a supportive family it hadn’t presented too much of an issue until his vision started getting worse.

Once he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, an inherited disorder that effects 1 in 4000 people, he started to get access to the services he needed to thrive despite his worsening condition.

It was around this time he discovered the support that he fell in love with, the sport for which he would go on to represent his country for over 20 years.

I grew up in a family of athletes. My dad was a baseball player, a football player. My my sister did all sorts of sports. I was just loved being active.” Tyler was determined that his condition was not going to hinder his ability to perform and compete in some way.

 

Getting to the top and the USA goalball team

It was a meteoric rise, that Tyler talks about with great modesty. He puts most of it down to circumstance, an athletic family, a well established goalball setup in his home state, and a dad willing to drive him to practice.

He also jokes that, “when I went to practice, there was a couple of guys who were part of the Paralympic team. They showed me no mercy! ‘This kids got potential, we’re gonna we’re gonna bludgeon it out of him.

His big break came after the 2000 Sydney games. A couple of the senior squad retired and so Tyler got his opportunity.

It was definitely something that was pretty incredible because I had no idea that that’s where I was headed. People ask me ‘Did you always want to play for the US team?’ But when I first started playing goalball I didn’t even know they had that.

He says he was shocked when he was first asked to try out for the team.

I’m playing ball, having fun so when the USA coaches come up to me and say, ‘You want to come to a try out camp for the US team?’ Again I was like, Wow, you guys have a USA team for this stuff! I had no idea.”

 

A major game changer

Now in his 20th year competing at the highest level Tyler has witnessed an evolution of the sport and he’s evolved to keep up with these changes and remain a central component of the USA team for 2 decades.

From rule changes to technical changes to the physicality of the game, it’s changed a lot since he first started.

The big change is the sheer physicality. Every team is loaded with guys who are in good physical condition, who are ready to play. The whole game is elevated.”

The approach of the US team has had to change to keep up with the leading pack. Nowhere is this change more pronounced than in the development of their resident training program in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

That’s been a really big deal…. A major, major game changer.” enthuses Tyler.

This is symptomatic of the wider forces that are pushing the sport forward at a dramatic pace that seems to mirror Tyler’s own rise to the top of his sport and he own big physical presence on the court.

 

Goalball is the greatest game

Tyler believes the driver of this evolution is the passion for the sport that is felt by all those involved.

It’s the greatest game out there. And the people who play tend to just love everything about their sport, and they want goalball to be a top sport. They want people to know what it is. They want people to appreciate it as much as they do.

It’s given me as, as an athlete who’s blind, an outlet. And I think that treating it like a professional game and making it bigger, faster, stronger. It’s just the natural course when you care about something like that.

 

Challenges and coming back stronger

The last year has had it own unique challenges, but it’s not upset Tyler’s drive to the quicker and stronger. If anything he believes it’s helped.

Having the training centre has been a big part of this as the players are still training together everyday, and filling the competition void.

We haven’t been able to have any tournaments in over a year now, it drives us a little batty. So any chance that we get to compete against each other is is welcome. But it really is high time that goalball gets back back into activity in my opinion.

And he and the team are more than ready when competition restarts.

Despite the pandemic Tyler feels that its been a good year for the team in terms of training and preparation.

Going into 2020, we had a shift in coaching staff. Our previous coach, Matt Boyle was let go and new coaches were put in place. We were ready to compete in Tokyo. But the postponement of those games has strengthened our team.

We’ve gotten stronger, we’ve gotten faster. Our coaches have established themselves more firmly. So it’s definitely not been a wasted year, we have been working extremely hard. And I think we’re going to be better for it.

 

Going for gold with Team USA

That’s good news for the team because competition is stiff for those medal places.

When I think about our biggest competitors, there’s nine other teams that are going to be in Tokyo, so I put all nine of them on that list. If I had to pick two of them… Brazil is a big competitor of ours and Lithuania is a team that we’ve always seemed to have trouble with.”

But as you might imagine for a man of his skill and experience Tyler is confident about what the team can achieve this year in Tokyo.

So my ambition for the year head is spending as much time as I can with my family, while devoting every ounce of energy I can to being prepared for Tokyo, going to Tokyo and winning Tokyo.

I was a bronze medallist in Athens in 2004, the silver medallist in Rio in 2016. So I have one more to collect, and my intention is to collect that medal.

With his obvious drive, commitment and dedication, coupled with coaches and team mates who share his will to succeed you’d find it difficult to bet against him.

Our thanks to Tyler for taking time to talk to us.

Tyler is also a trained fitness coach and is featured in our blind and visually impaired stay-at-home fitness work outs.

 


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New to goalball? Here is an introduction to the sport of Goalball

Listen to more of our interviews with adaptive sports players and coaches below, including this interview with USA women’s Team co-captain Amanda Dennis.