Sports is not a topic I ever expected to touch when writing about heroes. After all, every daily newspaper already has an entire section dedicated to the topic. The unique sport I want to talk about is seldom, if ever, reported on by the media for it is not a glamorized-on-TV sport and has no well-paid stars. I find myself compelled to write about it because I just returned from a tournament featuring some very good teams and find myself highly impressed. The game is something even most sports nuts probably haven’t heard of. I hadn’t either until I became involved with it as a volunteer a couple of months ago. One thing which makes it unique is none of the players saw the action, and neither did a substantial part of the audience.
You’ve surely figured out by now this is a sport played by blind and sight-impaired players. They all wear eyeshades to neutralize any sight advantage. Interestingly, I heard the word “watching” used by blind people in the audience, yet they were doing what the rest of us would think of as “listening.” Because detection of the ball is entirely auditory, silence in the gym is enforced by the game officials when the perforated three-pound basketball-sized ball with embedded jingling bells is in play on the volleyball-sized court.
At this point I wouldn’t blame you for thinking this has to be a slow and polite puffball sport, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Medal-contending teams have young, well-conditioned players who practice many hours each week. To have any chance of medaling in a competition like this, a team’s players not only need to be strong, they need an incredible sense of court position, a cat-like agility, and super reflexes. They must also be fearless because high-level players on both male and female teams whip the ball down the court at floor level with incredible power. Unfortunately, the Seattle team’s average age is well above the prime goalball playing age and neither the men’s or women’s team reached the medal round at the tournament.
Goalball players put speed on the ball in various ways, most commonly by combining a fast-pitch softball-type windup with a bowling release. Some even release the ball after two or three quick steps followed by a 360 degree discus-thrower spin. Now picture the defenders trying to stop such a missile with their body by diving to the floor and extending their arms and legs. This could be scary even if you saw the ball coming, but everyone on the court is wearing eyeshades and doing it blind.
To get an idea of how the game works, picture two sets of three blindfolded soccer goalies facing each other less than 50 feet apart, with each side in front of a goal cage extending across the full width of the court–five feet wider than a soccer net. The players on defense need to coordinate their actions to stop a ball shooting in at nearly the speed of a kicked soccer ball by lying on the floor, and they must do this repeatedly about every 15 seconds for 20 or 24 minutes. Olympic-level players can throw at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, which means the ball hits the defenders in about half a second. The defending team then has ten seconds from the time the ball is touched to field the blocked ball and try to score on the opposing team. Some of these teams are so skilled their players are able to switch positions in the middle of the action, or dart across the floor to return the ball from the opposite side of the court and still get back to defend their own position well before the ball comes flying back. It is an incredible thing to witness. In the dozen or so matches I watched, not a single collision of players out on the court took place, but I did see more than a few sighted spectators in the bleachers trip across white canes, gym bags, and guide dogs. Okay, maybe I have to plead guilty to that myself.
If there are to be sports heroes, I’d certainly nominate anyone who plays goalball, or provides support for the sport. The 2012 edition of the Cascade Classic Goalball Tournament (sponsored by Oregon Disability Sports) I attended was held May 11-13 in Vancouver, Washington. Teams from around the US and Canada, from places such as Michigan, Utah, Arizona, California, Oregon, New York, Georgia, Colorado, British Columbia, and of course Seattle, Washington, battled it out in gyms on the campuses of the Washington State School for the Blind and the Washington State School for the Deaf. This is one of the most active and fast-paced games you’re ever likely to see. It has all the elements necessary to make it an appealing mainstream sport, but if it ever reached such a status it would face one big problem—blind and sight-impaired players would have to be banned from playing because they’d have such an inherent advantage in their developed ability to maneuver blindfolded.
Yes, I’ve tried playing it. It’s daunting!
Video of part of the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games Goalball Men Final CHN vs LTU
United States Association of Blind Athletes
International Blind Sport Federation
Seattle: Vision Loss Connections