Commerce Township resident reflects on opportunities to be a part of Paralympic Games

By: Mark Vest | Metro | Published October 29, 2021

 After having challenges keeping up with his peers in other sports due to being legally blind, Commerce Township resident John Kusku was introduced to the sport of goalball, which allows him to compete on an even level. He is pictured with his son, George, and his wife, Jessica.

After having challenges keeping up with his peers in other sports due to being legally blind, Commerce Township resident John Kusku was introduced to the sport of goalball, which allows him to compete on an even level. He is pictured with his son, George, and his wife, Jessica.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Advertisement

COMMERCE TOWNSHIP — Commerce Township resident John Kusku said he has always enjoyed playing sports.

However, when he was younger, that enjoyment came with a particular set of challenges.

“I couldn’t keep up with my peers because I couldn’t see,” Kusku said.

Kusku, who is 37, was born legally blind. He has retinitis pigmentosa, which is a disease that he said “gets worse as I get older.”

He added that he has no peripheral vision.

“When I was younger, I probably had 15 or 20 degrees of vision, whereas a normal person has, like, 180,” Kusku said. “And as I got older, that got smaller.”

Kusku said he currently has less than 1 degree of vision.

When he was in elementary and early middle school, he played soccer. He was also into in-line skating driveway hockey.

“But as things got faster, kids got better, and I got more blind, I couldn’t keep up,” Kusku said.

A conversation he had with one of his teachers ended up changing the course of Kusku’s life.

“In Michigan, we don’t really have a school for blind kids,” he said. “We go to regular schools, and then we have teachers who come and work with us to teach us things like Braille, how (to) use a white cane, and how to use technology to fit ourselves into this sighted world. And one of my teachers said, ‘Hey, you might be interested in this sport; there’s these little tournaments here and there.’”

The sport his teacher was referring to is goalball, and Kusku decided to take it up around the age of 10.

He eventually ended up attending a sports camp that is run by the Michigan Blind Athletic Association.

Kusku said it was a “game-changer,” and he recalled the moment when he decided the sport of goalball was for him.

“It was in May of 1998, and I was playing in my first game at the sports camp,” he said. “A player at the other end was the hardest thrower at the tournament. He threw a ball right down the sideline, and I blocked it with my face, which you’re not supposed to do. It gave me a huge bloody nose, and I think that was the moment that I fell in love with goalball.”

Kusku added that, “It was like, ‘Oh, man. I can play this sport and get hurt in a healthy way as part of the game.’”

Goalball is played three-versus-three on a gym floor court.

“You’ve got three guys at each end trying to defend their goal,” Kusku said. “You’re trying to throw a ball past their team into the goal. The ball is like a basketball, except it has bells on it, and when we play, everyone is completely blind. We wear blacked-out ski goggles, so there’s no vision at all.”

In the sport, players dive on the floor to try to prevent balls that are rolled from opposing players from going into the goal for a score.

When he first learned about goalball, little did Kusku know the kind of opportunities it would lead to.

His involvement with goalball led to the chance to be a part of two Paralympic Games, the first in Rio in 2016 and most recently as part of Team USA at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Kusku originally qualified for Team USA in 2009. However, the team failed to qualify for the Paralympic Games in London in 2012.

Team USA took a silver medal at the Paralympic Games in Rio and finished fourth in Tokyo.

KeithYoung is Team USA’s head coach. He said Kusku “knows the game of goalball.”

“John has been playing the sport for quite a long time and is a veteran,” Young said. “He adapts easily with the other players on the team. … He’s very organized in his approach on and off the court when it comes to the sport of goalball.”

Team USA’s training takes place in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Kusku said he goes for a weekend about once a month and sometimes for two-week trips in the summer.

His duties with Team USA sometimes mean taking time off of work at Oakland Schools Technical Campus Southwest in Wixom, where he teaches math and physics to high school juniors and seniors.

Kusku said students come into the building for half of their school day to learn a trade.

Kusku, who graduated from Warren Mott High School before going on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Western Michigan University, takes unpaid leave when his Team USA duties take him away from work. However, he said the United States Association of Blind Athletes covers travel and competition costs.

Kusku said he fit in “pretty well” going through the public school system. His dad, he said, was very supportive in helping provide transportation, which “is always a challenge for someone who can’t get a driver’s license.”

Kusku’s mom provided support in other ways.

“My mom always said to me that I can do anything I want to do. I can have any career or life I choose,” he said.

However, Kusku’s mom also let him know that he would probably have to work a lot harder than other people to make it happen.

“I’ve never shirked that notion,” he said. “I’ve always been a very hard worker, to make sure whatever I want gets to come true.”

Kusku has lost both of his parents.

His wife teaches children who are visually impaired in Wayne County. Kusku said his wife has no vision problems and that the couple’s 8-year-old son doesn’t, either.

Kusku has had opportunities and adventures that many don’t get to experience, and he shared the perspective of a friend that also hit home for him.

“I read a social media post from a friend of mine the other day. She was talking about how when she meets people, they think it’s really sad that she’s blind, and that it’s such a hard thing,” he said. “And she just responds that she’s happy she’s blind. It’s given her so many opportunities. … So she would never trade her blindness for anything.”

His friend’s viewpoint is one that Kusku can appreciate.

“It’s a perspective that I have for this sport, too,” he said. “I’m athletic, but I don’t know if I would have found my place onto a USA national team in a different sport. Maybe my blindness is not something to be looked at as a hindrance, but instead as an opportunity.”

Kusku has had outreach opportunities to speak with students with multiple disabilities, and he said the feedback he has gotten is “pretty fantastic.”

“I would say the thing that’s even more fantastic is when I see the careers that some of the kids have. I’ve been doing this now since I was like 16, 17, 18 years old,” he said. “There’s lots of adults who are blind and vision-impaired out there working for Google, working for Apple; also teachers all over the world doing stuff. So to see their success is the thing that’s most exciting, and to know that I played some sort of a part in inspiring or promoting that.”

Advertisement