My story in goalball

Riikka Juntunen is a former Finnish women’s goalball national team coach. Nowadays she works as a Director of the Finnish Sport Association of Persons with Disabilities.

“I was a coach of the Finnish women’s national team for 2000–2010. There are so many unforgettable training and competition experiences in those ten years.

The first IBSA World Games of my career were played in Quebec, Canada in 2003. We were confident before the tournament although well aware that no one was expecting anything special from us. The stakes were high: top two teams would get tickets to the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.

Our team had been through significant changes after some key players of the past decade had retired. Maija Piiroinen, an infamous goal scorer, who had dominated the courts for long was still in the squad, though, accompanied with Päivi Tolppanen and Katja Heikkinen, young players who were on the brink of becoming world class. Maija’s throws were heavy and accurate. When we played against Sweden, their center used to cry out “Nej, Maija…! before Maija’s every throw. Quite often the center were late with her defence and the ball was found from the back of the net. It was always fun playing against Sweden and having Maija in the squad made the matches even more colourful.

Riikka Juntunen

The round robin went well from us in Quebec and everything seemed to be ok, at least as ok it can be in women’s team during an important tournament. We had thought various possible crisis scenarios beforehand so we would be ready when the time comes. Still it was quite a surprise when Maija yelled “Hey, I left my shoes to the hotel” an hour before our next match. Transportation was organised with school buses and the trip back to our hotel was over an hour – so it wasn’t possible to get them by bus.

Someone remembered that Marko Kauppila from our men’s team had somewhat as big foot as Maija’s. Men’s match was on the way in the other hall and it was my job to try to get Marko’s shoes before women’s match starts. The problem was that Marko was in the court… I tried to yell to men’s coaches from the stands that we would need Marko’s shoes quite soon. As everyone involved in goalball know, yelling from the stands can easily be interpreted as illegal coaching so I was instructed by the referees to shut my mouth or I would be thrown out of the hall. After all I got my message through and men’s coaches promised to get Marko’s shoes as soon as men’s match was over. Schedule said that the match should end about 15 minutes before the start of women’s match, so we had to hope it wouldn’t go to overtime…

We decided that I would still go back to our hotel to get Maija’s own shoes. Our other coach Ben Katro stayed with the players in warm up and I jumped in to a cab. The driver was a sport enthusiast and understood my situation – I think we made some kind of a track record and I was back in the venue before the half time. Because I wasn’t allowed to go to the bench in the middle of a first set, I had to sit in the stands and wait for a half time. Finally the ref whistled, I ran to our bench, Maija got her own shoes, we won and headed towards Athens.

I remember the year 2007 from the best success and the worst disappointment of my coaching career. On spring we won the European Championships in Turkey after beating Denmark 2–1 in the final. Later same year we travelled to Sao Paolo, Brazil for another IBSA World Games and again there were tickets to Paralympics for the taking. The whole year had been fantastic for our team, both in training field and in tournaments. All that made the narrow loss to Brazil, who scored the decisive goal only 14 seconds before the final whistle, almost intolerable. A four year project towards Beijing 2008 was flushed down the toilet in the blink of an eye. We got a small consolation as Finnish men’s team managed to reach the Paralympics but I’m still bit bitter when memorizing those moments in Brazil. Well, big emotions are most definitely part of sports.

The players changed, the staff members changed during the years but every member of the team have left a mark. The team wouldn’t have been the same without all of you. My last major event was the World Championships in Sheffield 2010, just before I started my job as a director of the Finnish Sports Association of Persons with Disabilities. We finished fifth after beating Japan in our last match. That game went to penalties and if I remember correctly, it was the 38th penalty that decided the winner. Because of our match all the medal matches were postponed… My last match was at the same time my longest.

After my coaching career I have had an opportunity to experience big goalball tournaments as organizer – and so it will be this year also in Pajulahti. See you at the sidelines!”

There will be total of 22 blog texts published in the Pajulahti 2017 blog, one text every week until the 2017 IBSA Goalball European Championships on 18–22 of September. Each week there will be a different writer. New blog text will be published every Wednesday.