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Get to Know our Travel & Training Recipients Part 1

Being an athlete takes hard work and dedication. The sleepless hours, time spent training and practicing, and if you’re a student, the juggling of assignments and competition can all become overwhelming. It may not be an easy feat, but the recipients of the 2018 WSF Travel & Training grants prove that the commitment is worth it. From Olympic hopefuls to Olympic and Paralympic athletes, these women defy all odds with hard work, sacrifice and commitment. Their stories and relentlessness allow others to be inspired, especially younger athletes who aspire to be where they are one day. We had the pleasure of speaking with a few of the athletes and learning about their journeys, goals and accomplishments. We then had the opportunity to ask the tough questions; like what’s a talent they have that not many know about.

Amanda Dennis, Abby Gustaitis, Briauna Jones, and Kamali Thompson are just few of the many recipients of the WSF’s Travel & Training grant and were amongst the first to be interviewed for the Travel & Training blog series. To get a glimpse into the extraordinary young women’s lives, read their responses below.

Amanda Dennis, Goalball

Abby Gustaitis, Rugby

Briauna Jones, Bobsled

Kamali Thompson, Fencing

Q: What’s something unique about yourself that sets you apart from everyone else who plays the sport?

Amanda: Maybe this isn’t unique, but I am the only elite women’s players in the US who is left-handed and amongst only 3-5 women’s players in the world who are left-handed. It actually is comparable to other sports, where left-handed throwers have a unique throw, and I think that sets some players apart. I’m also the only player from Georgia who has made the Paralympic Goalball team (as far as I know of) and until last year I had only ever trained with male athletes. I really never had other girls around me to train with, so I always trained with the boys, and since the guys typically throw much faster than girls, it helped me elevate my game to a whole new level earlier on.

Q: What’s your biggest obstacle/challenge overall that you have overcome? And what’s the biggest or greatest challenge you face today?

Kamali: Fencing at a later age was challenging. Others had the fundamentals down, whereas I had to cram the foundation. There were basic things I should have known at a later stage that everyone else did. It wasn’t until I started competing internationally that I was able to build my skills. Medical school is the toughest challenge I face today. Sometimes I feel as though I’m not 100 percent dedicated. If I don’t perform well I think what was all the hard work practicing and training for? I could have devoted more time to studying and schoolwork, and vice versa.

Q: What are some tips you would give to other aspiring young athletes who would like to compete at your level one day?

Abby: Never give up, good things will come. Hard work, determination, and doing extra can only help. Also, move with purpose and intent with each and every activity.

Briauna: Don’t be afraid to write your own story. You’re in total control of your own outcome. Don’t look at anyone else’s journey and compare where you are in yours. People will doubt you and try to put a timeline on your story and success, don’t listen. 

Q: What or who keeps you motivated?

Amanda: First, I think what keeps me motivated is knowing that we are not the best in that sport, especially goalball offers us the opportunity to see how good we can get. During my grandmother’s battle with cancer, her will to live, and fight and her desire to support me in absolutely everything I do inspires me. Also, I know that this could fit into that, but I have an extremely supportive family. My mom and dad have always supported the goals that I wanted to achieve throughout my entire career. From my childhood now to adulthood I’ve always believed (because of them) that working hard will get you where you want to be. Whether it was having to work for my parents in their Subway franchises when I was a kid to earn my way to tournaments or achieving a goal that my national coach set for me to reach a new milestone my parents have given me wisdom and a lot of motivation along the way.

Lastly, I can’t even begin to mention how much I have grown (as a player and person) since the Rio 2016 Paralympic games. I can attribute a lot of that to my new coach Jake Czechowski who honestly has shown each and every player that they are an asset to the team no matter their role and worked individually with us on the court on skills that we need to know and helping us in his free time, or off the court on helping us mentally grow as players. He has been an outstanding coach for our team and keeps me motivated to be the best goalball player, and overall a better person on-and-off the court.

Don’t be afraid to write your own story. You’re in total control of your own outcome. Don’t look at anyone else’s journey and compare where you are in yours. People will doubt you and try to put a timeline on your story and success, don’t listen. – Briauna Jones

Abby: My niece, 3, and goddaughter, 5, keep me motivated. I know that I have to be a role model to them and I want them to know that there are no boundaries. I want to convey through my actions to keep chasing whatever it is they’re after in every aspect of life.

Briauna: The people at UNC – Charlotte keep me motivated. I am a volunteer track & field coach, and a lot of them look up to me. They look at my Instagram to see the places I’ve been and express how it motivates them. They reassure me by letting it be known that they are proud of me even when I may not be proud of myself.

Kamali: My teammates and family are my motivation. My teammates keep me focused because they are more competitive than I am. They will let me know that I have no time to waste. Sometimes I can become “lazy,” or what I feel is lazy because I’m also juggling medical school. My family is encouraging, and since my brother also fences, he and my mom know exactly what to say to uplift my spirits.

Q: What’s a hobby or talent you have that not many know about?

Amanda: Personally, I really enjoy doing thrilling things like skydiving or cliff jumping (once in a while). I also really enjoy weightlifting (outside of what I do for goalball training) because there’s always a new challenge or goal that you can put yourself up against. Also, not a lot of people know that when I was younger, I wanted to be a holistically talented person. I loved playing any sport that you let me try, but I also really enjoyed learning how to play new instruments. I learned how to play five instruments on a basic to intermediate level when I was in my younger years – and this can be hard for someone who is visually impaired, because you can’t see music notes on a page, and it’s harder to learn in a group lesson. I learned to play; Violin, Trumpet, Flute, Piano/Keyboard, and Clarinet.

Abby: I’m a volunteer firefighter and EMT. Ever since the age of 16 I grew up around the firehouse. My parents were members of the firehouse and the people there became like a second family. Actually, my certifications are still updated.

Briauna: Singing is actually my first love, and Michael Jackson is my favorite artist.

Kamali: Well, I can do a good British accent. I’m working on my French now.

To learn more about Abby, Amanda, Briauna and Kamali, please click here.