TOKYO — Asya Miller and Lisa Czechowski can’t remember exactly when they met, probably because it happened half a lifetime ago. In separate interviews this summer, it was suspected that they met at a regional athletics meeting. The other thought it happened at a goalkeeper tournament.
When and where their first meeting took place, neither could have known then that they would be teammates two decades later, playing goalball for the United States at their sixth Paralympic Games, Czechowski at age 42, Miller at 41. In Tokyo on Wednesday, the US will meet Russia in the quarterfinals.
The sport is one of only two in the Paralympics that has no counterpart in the Olympics. (Boccia is the other.) But Czechowski and Miller have no counterpart in Paralympic history: They are the first team in team sports to play six Games together, according to research by Bill Kellick of the US Association of Blind Athletes.
Over the years, Czechowski and Miller have quietly become leaders in a sport that the general public knows little about, but is a staple of the Paralympic Games.
They won their first Paralympic medals individually, in the discus throw at the 2000 Sydney Games, Czechowski silver, Miller bronze.
“With that background that athletics and field have in common, that’s how we really bonded,” Miller said.
Even then they were not opponents, because they competed in separate classifications for visually impaired. Those Games were also their first for the US Paralympic goalkeeper team, which finished sixth.
Shortly after, Miller and Czechowski committed to goal ball as their main sport, winning a silver medal in Athens, a gold medal in Beijing and a bronze in Rio de Janeiro.
In Tokyo, another woman in her 40s reached the goal ball quarter-finals, Rie Urata of Japan, who is 44. Most rosters are filled with athletes in their twenties; the Turkish team, the reigning Paralympic champion, has an age range of 17 to 27 years.
Goal ball is specially designed for blind and partially sighted athletes and is played on a field that is 18 meters long and nine meters wide. Three athletes for each side attempt to throw a bubble ball down the opponent’s goal line, usually with a bowling ball because the ball must hit the ground. There is a string attached to markers on the floor to guide the players, they all wear eyeshadow to make up for the differences in limitation.
In defense, players work on their hands and knees, often throwing their bodies at the ball. Advances in sports medicine have helped Czechowski and Miller, who once tore a rotator cuff, stay on the field together for so long.
Jake Czechowski, Lisa’s husband and head coach of the national goal ball team since 2016, can personally testify to the toll of the game on the body. He once played in a tournament where sighted people could play, with the right eyeshadow. “I got beat up,” he said. “I had the bruises to prove it.”
The Czechowskis have a 7-year-old son named Jay, and Miller has a 10-year-old boy named Ryder. They both arrived on July 2.
“It’s a really great bond that we have – the fact that our kids were born literally three years apart,” said Lisa Czechowski.
On the field and in conversations, Czechowski radiates a sense of order and discipline. Miller, a bit more id than ego, likes to keep things loose.
“They really help balance each other out,” said Jake Czechowski.
He described Miller as “extremely casual” and also “a bit of a neat freak.” On the field, he said, she clears her field like a hockey goalkeeper clears the crease.
“And she’ll make comments about, you know, ‘I smell popcorn in the crowd,’ or just about anything but what’s going on in the game,” he said.
Early this summer, Miller sketched a fantasy goal ball commercial for Geico in a bowling alley. It ends with throwing the ball through the back of the building.
“That’s the kind of stuff I’ll talk to myself on the field,” she said, “it’s just kind of silly stuff that I like, but doesn’t make sense to anyone else.”
Miller sees Lisa Czechowski as “an active textbook listener. You know, repeating exactly what you say in the form of a question.”
But when Czechowski wants to sell the target ball sport to young people with impaired vision, she has prepared something of a stupid speech.
As a teenager, Czechowski said, she shied away from anything that set her apart from her peers.
“I definitely struggled with the stigma of being visually impaired,” she said. “I had large print books at school. I had to sit at the front of the class. I had to use several small vision devices to see. So it was very clear. And that was hard for me, because I always wanted to be like everyone else.”
Her mother, she said, had involved her in softball, which didn’t work out well. Bowling turned out to be a better fit. “It was indoors, a controlled environment, not so bright,” Czechowski said. “I thought, ‘This is great.'”
She eventually found success in athletics, which supported her need to fit in with her high school, even as her vision continued to deteriorate.
She first learned about goalball when a physical education consultant working for the state of New Jersey visited her school to teach gym teachers how to create opportunities for students with disabilities. Czechowski remembers trying badminton with an oversized racket and a huge birdie. In the end, she couldn’t see the birdie. When he suggested and explained goal ball, she refused. She didn’t want to be part of a sport that was only for the visually impaired.
“I wasn’t embracing my own visual impairment at the time,” she said, “and I wasn’t ready, honestly..”
However, the advisor introduced Czechowski to a group of what she calls “wonderful, persistent people” involved in the state association of blind athletes. They kept checking in and providing goal ball opportunities until she relented.
In October 1995, she attended her first goal ball practice at a community center in West Orange.
“My life changed forever when I went to this practice,” she said, “and I allowed myself to open up and, you know, literally get a picture of what was out there.”
Now she and Miller marvel at how much the game has changed since their early years.
It used to be divided into seven-minute halves; now they last 12 minutes each.
Changes to the shot clock, now a strict 10 seconds from when a player on defense makes contact with the ball, have made the game much faster.
The Brazilian team, which played the US in their first game, has developed a backward shot that is thrown between the legs, a bit like a long click in football.
“We don’t know they’re throwing between their legs. You just hear the ball coming towards you’ Czechowski said, adding: “I don’t have that flexibility, but their throws are great.”
Another major change for the sport: In 2017, Fort Wayne, Ind., opened its own training facility for the women’s team at the Turnstone Center for Children and Adults With Disabilities.
The Czechowskis moved from Arizona to Fort Wayne, while Miller remained in Oregon, where she works as a personal trainer and lives with Simony Batista, her wife of nearly four years.
Miller and Czechowski are nearly a decade older than each of their four teammates in Tokyo. The youngest, Marybai Huking, 24, is competing in her second Paralympic Games. Huking said she couldn’t imagine staying in the sport as long as Miller and Czechowski did.
“But I think it’s crazy and wonderful that they kept that love for the sport and that passion and wanted to stay,” she said, “because it’s a huge investment of time and it takes a lot of dedication.”
Miller has suggested that her competitive goal ball days are numbered – “my body has told me it’s time.” However, Czechowski may be back for the 2024 Paris Games.
“As long as she can get her, you know, replace parts if needed or whatever surgeries,” Miller said, “I don’t think she’s ever going to retire.”