Coral Springs Athlete Tyler Merren is headed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to compete in the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games on the U.S. Men’s Goalball team in September. A team sport developed for blind or visually impaired players, goalball utilizes a ball containing bells, which makes sounds when thrown at a goal at the opposing team’s end of the court. “It’s a mix of handball, volleyball and soccer,” explained Merren, whose team won a bronze medal at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens and took fourth place in the 2008 Games in Bejing.
A quote on www.goalball.us states, “Lack of sight does not mean lack of talent, dreams or desire.” And the Merren family personifies that. Tyler’s wife, Leanne is also blind, and plays on an elite women’s goalball team locally. Together they are raising four children, ages 16, 13, 8 and 10 months. And two years ago they pulled their children out of public school and began homeschooling. They are currently involved in the Parkridge Church Homeschoolers support group, and their son, Mason, plays soccer for the South Florida HEAT, a varsity athletic program for homeschoolers.
Whether stopping whizzing goalballs on the court or homeschooling four children, the Merrens do not shrink back from obstacles despite their lack of sight.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t know I was blind,” said Tyler. As a teen, he was diagnosed as legally blind due to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that causes a gradual decline in vision as photoreceptor cells (rods and cones) die. At that age, it was devastating news, Merren admitted. He was brought to the University of Michigan where he was introduced to resources, learned Braille and how to use a cane, and was given the opportunity to attend a sports camp. At camp he was introduced to goalball, and coming from an athletic family, he took to it right away. “Success felt good, and I knew no matter how much vision I lost, it wouldn’t affect my ability to play this sport. It was fun and so I just kept doing it.” In two years, he went from being introduced to the sport to playing on the US Men’s Paralympic team.
A highly competitive sport, goalball is played three-against-three on a gym floor. Players use rope taped to the floor to orientate themselves on the court and all players are blindfolded to make the game fair due to varying levels of sight among players. Tyler said it’s not uncommon for players to have bruises, burns or a broken thumb.
As a member of the U.S. Men’s team since 2001, he often travels internationally to competitions. He helped the team qualify for the Paralympics by taking third place overall at the World Championships. Tyler was the leading scorer for the team and has been captain for 10 years.
He and Leanne also play locally in an elite goalball program at the Lakeworth Therapeutic Recreation Center, where occasionally their son, Mason, will coach the team. Because Mason has learned to depend on his sight, the concept of putting on a blindfold and stepping in front of a ball is not appealing to him. As a coach, however, he is able, during brief timeouts, to advise the players on weaknesses he sees in the opposing team’s play.
“Mason has coached both of our teams to national championships,” Leanne shared. But when asked if she had aspirations of going to the Paralympics one day, the mother of four, said “I have never wanted to play at that level. Being a mom is my full-time occupation.”
Leanne lost her sight at the age of two after she developed retinoblastoma, a cancer of the retina, but does not really remember much about seeing at all. Formerly from Michigan, the Merrens moved to Florida where Tyler was offered a job as a trainer at 24-hour Fitness in Coral Springs.
“We love living in Florida because you can walk everywhere,” said Leanne. “The snow in Michigan was brutal. When using a cane, I would get disoriented, but my dog helped.”
In Michigan the Merrens enrolled their children in private Christian school with support from their church. The high cost of private education in Florida caused them to try the public schools for a year, but “we just didn’t like it,” said Tyler.
“I felt like God was telling me this is what your family needs. This is what you need to do. I never pictured myself as a homeschool mom,” admits Leanne. “I helped in the schools all the time with lunch duty and as a room parent for Caelyn’s kindergarten class, but I felt like God was saying this is what needs to happen. So I said, Okay Lord I’ll try it.”
Leanne acknowledges, “We’ve had one challenge after another, but my kids were able to work independently …So we’ve made it work and it’s just been amazing.”
They’ve noticed the children developing more of a thirst for learning and the family tends to be more connected. Leanne said they have also experienced much support from other families.
Chasing a dream
In addition to homeschooling, Leanne helps to supplement the family income by selling non-toxic personal care products as an independent consultant for Pure Haven Essentials.
Finding funds to support a family of six during this season of heavy training has been another challenge, and since this will be Tyler’s last bid for Olympic gold, he is hoping his wife and son can travel to Brazil to see him compete. Winning an Olympic gold-medal, and having his family there to see him do it is his dream. He’s training hard to achieve the first part, and if you would like to help him fund the second part, you can contribute online at Road to Rio by Tyler Merren at www.gofundme.com/fzkjfw44.