Hometown Hopefuls: Tyler Merren Is Goalball’s Biggest Advocate
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
For more than 20 years, Tyler Merren has competed in “the greatest sport that you’ve never heard of.” That’s what he calls goalball, the high-energy Paralympic sport that has no able-bodied counterpart. It stands on its own, invented just after the end of World War II to give wounded soldiers a way to stay healthy though exercise. That aim is close to Merren’s own personal ethos – the 39-year-old and Michigan native launched his own fitness company to provide blind and visually impaired people with audio-focused exercise.
That’s in addition to his many years on Team USA as one of the nation’s leading goalball scorers. He’s competed in Athens 2004, Rio 2016, and Tokyo 2020, winning Paralympic silver in Rio and bronze in Athens. With Paris less than a year away, he has no plans to stop now on his quest to capture an elusive gold medal. NBC Sports caught up with Merren on the road to the 2024 Paralympics to talk hometown support, business endeavors and what his two decades on Team USA mean to him.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NBC Sports: Where did you grow up?
Tyler Merren: I’ve lived in Michigan for most of my life. I was born in southwest Michigan, in Allegan. I grew up in the Wayland area, right between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, and I went to high school at Wayland Union. I went to college at Western Michigan in Kalamazoo.
What did you love most about growing up in Michigan?
Merren: There’s something special about the place and people. I’ve traveled a lot of places… I’ve met a lot of gems around the world, but there’s something about the Midwest that is just fantastic. Being back in Michigan, the big oaks and maples, the lakes and the rivers. The winters are still harsh, but honestly, I missed it a little bit. When we lived down in South Florida, it was beautiful all the time, but it just wasn’t home. Growing up on a farm and always being out in the woods, on the trails, and digging holes…it’s just something that I love being back around.
It’s so fun to watch! What do you personally love most about the sport?
Merren: This is going to sound ironic... but I don’t feel blind when I play goalball. My visual impairment is called retinitis pigmentosa. When I was a kid, my vision was a little better, but it was always limited. As I got older, my vision got worse and worse. Now in my late 30s, it’s pretty much totally gone. I’ve got a little bit of light perception; I can tell when the lights are on and off and that’s about it. Which is fine, I have so many blessings. I’ve grown up with it, I’ve learned to work with it, and I consider myself a pretty successful individual. But when I go and play goalball, I put on the blindfold, and everybody else does the same. We get on the court and just start playing ball. I feel like it’s not about my blindness at that point. It’s about my athleticism, the work that I’ve put in, and what I’m willing to do to compete in my sport. It sounds a little counterintuitive, but goalball is a time for me to get away from my blindness and the challenges in life that that can bring, and just go out and play some ball with my teammates.
You’ve been on the team for more than 20 years. What stands out to you about being on Team USA for over two decades?
Merren: It’s such a wild ride. There’s part of me that’s just so proud to be able to put on the red, white, and blue... I’m very proud to be an American; I think this is the greatest country in the world. It’s just amazing to be able to put on the stars and stripes and go out and represent my family, my friends. I have a lot of family who are military. It’s a huge honor. Then I’m also playing a sport that I love, that gives me an opportunity to compete at the highest level and put myself through the stresses and the rigors of being an athlete. I think the only thing I would say that has impacted my life more than this sport would be my faith. That would be number one.
Can you describe what you mean by that?
Merren: I mentioned the daily challenges that I face as somebody who’s visually impaired. My wife is totally blind. Like I said, I’m essentially totally blind… but we live every day as normal adults. We own a home, we’ve got kids…we pay the bills, we have full-time jobs, I run a business, we do all these things. I consider us to be pretty successful, and we love life. But along with those, there’s a lot of challenges, right? And it’s the simple things like even just reading the mail. We need assistive technology, and it’s not always the best. Sometimes we’ll have our kids help us read the mail. It’s just a wonky thing, right? Being able to get from our home to the next event. I own a van, I pay for it, it’s something that we own, but we don’t drive it, so we hire a driver. There are just extra steps, there’s extra challenges in life. My faith has, for many years, brought me to a point of saying, “You know what? This is what I have. This is who I am, this is who I have been made to be.” And if this is who I’m made to be, then there’s a reason for that. One of my favorite Bible verses, it’s found in the Gospel of John, I believe it’s John 9. Jesus and his disciples are walking along the road, and they see a blind man begging on the side of the road. They ask him, “Teacher, why is this man blind? Did he sin or did his parents sin that made him blind.” Jesus’ response was, “It was neither his sin nor his parents, but he was made this way so that the works of God could be shown in him.” And that’s something that I stand on every day, and every opportunity that I can. I’m here for a reason, and whatever that is, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.
Thank you for sharing that. I really appreciate your personal transparency there. You’ve mentioned some of your children are coaches. How are they involved in goalball?
Merren: My wife and I both play goalball. We have four children, two of them grown and flown, two of them at home still. They grew up around the sport. One of my former teammates, when we lived in Florida, liked to say that my son, Mason, has been involved in goalball since he was a fetus. So yeah, my son has coached us at several tournaments. The tournament we were at most recently, my third child, my 15-year-old daughter, coached with my wife for our team. So, my girls and my son have always volunteered as line judges or other parts of the game. It’s always been a family affair, and it’s cool when they get involved.
You also have a company that you’ve started, right?
Merren: Yeah, so I started an LLC a few years ago called ReVision Training, LLC. It’s a company that encompasses a few areas of my specialties. One of the big areas is I’m a motivational speaker. I travel around speaking to schools, companies, organizations, corporates, churches. I’ve spoken to many groups sharing my story, inspiring people to “See the champion within,” the title of my presentation, and giving some key points as to how to bring out your greatest potential. I’ve also been a personal trainer for over a decade… so I took the opportunity to create an app called ReVision Fitness. It’s specifically designed to be accessible for sighted and visually impaired alike. It’s an audio-based fitness program. There are lessons, audio workouts, and fitness plans, and other tools to improve fitness, all built in an accessible way. So that takes up a lot of my time and energy. It’s a tremendous project, but very rewarding as well.
Was there a specific moment where you decided to embark and start this LLC?
Merren: When we lived in South Florida, we rented a townhome that was about a 12-minute walk away from where I worked at 24 Hour Fitness; very easy for me to get back and forth from work. And it was a very simple thing. About five and a half years into my time with them, they ended up closing down that location and moving across town. So, if I drove, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, it was like a 20-minute drive. But taking the bus, my 12-minute walk turned into about a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride back and forth. It just wasn’t feasible anymore to continue doing that same job. I took that opportunity to step away to start doing more speaking events and to work on this project that I knew had been needed for a really long time, which was to create an accessible platform for people who are blind who wanted to learn how to do fitness. Just as an example... If you’ve never seen anybody do a push up, how do you know what a push up is until somebody really breaks it down for you? I think it will continue to make a big impact in the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired and sighted as well. A lot of my former clients who liked my training methods are signed up on the app and use it regularly. When people want to jump into a workout, they don’t want to have to be glued to a screen, right? It’s all audio-based and easy to follow.
Let’s talk a little bit about your many Paralympic experiences. What’s one memory that stands out from Athens?
Merren: We had gone into the bronze medal match down a couple of players and the first half of the game didn’t go super well. We went into the second half losing by a score of four to one. And it just became this Miracle on Ice-type situation, where we just slowly fought our way back, one play at a time. I ended up scoring multiple times in that second half. I played center, so I was the starting defender and producing a lot of offense. I ended up bringing the score back to a tie of four to four, and with 17 seconds left, the team we were playing against, Canada, they ended up throwing a penalty. I ended up burying the shot, so we went on to win five-to-four and we won a bronze medal for the team. It was the first medal the U.S. men’s team had won in the sport of goalball in multiple years. It was very exciting. My dad was there in the stands watching this comeback and it was a proud moment for him, too.
What about something that stands out from Rio?
Merren: Rio was very special to me because I had planned on retiring after those games. I felt like I had made a good run, we had a good team setup, we were ready to go and grab that gold medal finally. So, we went through the tournament and competed well. We won our quarterfinal against Germany just barely; we beat them by one point, and we made it into the final round. We came up against Brazil in the semifinal match… the home nation, who were also heavily favored to win the tournament. They’d scored more goals and allowed fewer than any other team… but we ended up beating them handily. The game was very close for the majority of it, but at the end, they just kind of imploded. We ended up beating them by a score of 10 to one, which is unheard of. They’ve not lost a game like that before or since. I ended up scoring, I think, eight or nine of our 10 goals; a lot of them on penalty shots. It was just an amazing experience. After the game, we gathered up as a team and there’s 8,000 fans in the stadium and everybody’s going crazy. And I decided after that that I couldn’t stay away from the sport. I did retire for a short time but came back and started competing with the team again after that.
Any memory that stands out from Tokyo?
Merren: The very first game of the tournament was USA vs. Brazil... and we ended up beating them by a score of eight to six. So, it was such a great start for us. Unfortunately, about halfway through the game, I came out with an injury. I sprained my left AC joint in my shoulder, and I was unable to compete the rest of the tournament. That really was hard for the team. Brazil went on to win the gold medal, and we ended up fourth place at the end of the tournament. It’s bittersweet because I feel like had I been able to stay in the game and compete, I think we would have medaled. I was very proud of my guys. I had a great experience… and it was a lesson for me too. Pretty much since square one being on the USA team, I’ve been the guy out there on the starting lineup, scoring goals, making the plays. In this tournament, I had to sit on the sideline. I had to watch my teammates do the work, encourage them, and try to keep myself from falling apart because I was hurting and frustrated... but I felt like I did a really good job of just being there for those guys.
Do you have any memories of a hometown reception?
Merren: After winning the silver medal in Rio…I was brought into a city board meeting for the city of Coral Springs, where we were living at the time, and I was awarded the key to the city. It was such an honor. I got to stand up in front of a lot of people... I said then, and I stand by this still, “This feels like a really big thing to give to somebody who made a career out of bludgeoning other people with a ball.” [laughs] It was a huge honor for me and it’s something that I still have hanging up. There’s been some great recognition. I’m happy to be back in Michigan. If I can go to Paris and… come back with some hardware and show off some of the rings and medals in a place where more of the people that I grew up around can share in that experience, that’s something I’m very excited about.
What has changed within the Paralympic movement between Athens and Tokyo?
Merren: It’s gained a lot of momentum... all in very good ways. One well-encompassing example is the United States Olympic Committee, a handful of years ago, changed its name officially to the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee or USOPC. That’s a big deal. The motto of the Paralympic Games is “spirit in motion.” These athletes come from various backgrounds. Some of them are military, they’re amputees because they were injured in war. Some of them were born with a disability. Ultimately, what you find in these athletes is, separating out their disability, they’re just these impressive athletes that come out and compete at the highest level in their sport. Then you add that concept back in of them overcoming the challenge of their disability, and it’s just such an amazing thing. I look at these athletes, and I think “This is just a testament to the strength of the human spirit.” People are recognizing that more and more. You see the Paralympic Games and you see the growth and the competitiveness and the media coverage. When we were in Athens, there was almost no media coverage for the sport of goalball. For Tokyo, all of our games were televised and done very professionally. It was wonderful; the video footage was good, and the announcers were fantastic. It’s something that we so appreciate because... they could tuck us into a corner and lock the doors and we’d still play goalball and have a wonderful time with it—but it’s such an amazing sport; it’s addicting. People just fall in love with it.
When is the next chance for Team USA to qualify for Paris 2024?
Merren: The Para Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, will be our last qualifying opportunity. It’s taking place November 18-24. If we take first in that tournament, then we qualify to go to Paris.
Should you qualify, what is your goal for Paris?
Merren: We never go into a tournament not aiming for a gold medal. I’ve been around the U.S. team for a long time and talent has never been a question. It’s putting the pieces together and putting our best game forward. The U.S. team has enough talent and ability to beat any team out there.
Has the qualification system changed at all since you started playing goalball?
Merren: When I first started, when we went to Athens, there were 12 teams that were able to qualify for the Paralympic Games in men’s goalball. In more recent competitions, they’ve cut that number down to 10. And, actually, for Paris, the number is going to be cut down even further. Only the top eight teams are going to qualify… which is just outrageously tight. There’s such a narrow window to make these Games. We’re very hopeful for our opportunity to win our regional, but not everybody gets to go, and there are a lot of teams who deserve to go that won’t be part of the Paris 2024 games. [Note: As of early October, The Brazilian men’s goalball team has already qualified for the 2024 Paralympics, along with China, Japan, and host nation France.]
Who would you say is your biggest competition?
Merren: Our biggest competition, for sure, is Brazil. They were the gold medalists in Tokyo and are reigning world champions. Brazil has only lost three games in the last eight years, and one of them was just recently in the Nations Cup tournament in Berlin. Prior to that they’d only lost twice, and both times it was to the U.S., so we are definitely big rivals with them. They’re a fantastic team… super generous people and great to be around, but on the court they’re our biggest rivals and one of the strongest teams out there.
You mentioned that you initially retired between Rio and Tokyo. Will Paris 2024 be your last?
Merren: The answer is, honestly, I don’t know. Goalball is a lot of work; it’s a massive amount of commitment. My wife and my family have sacrificed a lot over the last two decades to allow me to go on these trips and to compete; it’s never something that I can take for granted with them. It’s a high-level, impactful sport, and my body has held up over the years, thankfully. I do a pretty good job of taking care of myself, but I’m seeing a lot more chronic things crop up. If we qualify for Paris, I think I would make a run for Paris, but what would I do after that? The interesting thing about that question is that the 2028 Games are going to be in the United States, in Los Angeles. They’re at home. So, our team automatically qualifies for LA 2028. Would I be able to be competitive all the way through 2028… at the age of, I guess it would be about 44 years old, give or take? I don’t know, I would like to think that I could. I’d like to think that it’d be great to compete in front of my family and friends; not many of them have been able to be there and see me compete at the international level, because I’m usually off in Eastern Europe or somewhere in Asia. There’s something very beautiful and symmetrical about potentially retiring after being competitive in front of a home crowd, but only time will tell. Life has a way of throwing some curveballs, and I’m used to hitting curveballs, and that’s fine... but I don’t make a good practice of predicting four or five years from now, either.