Fresh off the Olympic Games, Brazil now hosts the Paralympic Games. Athletes from the Northwest are packing up this week to fly south to compete in sports such as wheelchair rugby, sitting volleyball -- and goalball.
What’s goalball? The three-on-three game is played indoors on a volleyball-sized court and features a roughly three-pound medicine ball that has bells in it. That’s because these athletes are all blind or visually-impaired.
Defenders crouch, reach, slide or lunge when they hear the ball coming at them. The court is marked off with tactile lines made with masking tape over string so players can feel where they are.
Seven-time U.S. Paralympian Jen Armbruster of Portland described goalball as most similar to “reverse dodge ball."
While the object of dodge ball is to avoid the thrown ball, in goalball the defending team puts their bodies in the way of the ball aimed at the wide goal behind them.
"It's a much heavier ball going a lot faster, but your defense is very much (like) a soccer goalie,” Armbruster said. “You're defending and using your body to defend it. The underhand motion is like a softball pitcher. It's underhand or sidearm because it has to be low."
The sport was invented in Europe right after World War II to help blinded veterans stay active. It came to America a few decades later. There are about 15 club teams around the Northwest, but as yet no organized leagues.
Spectators have to be quiet during matches, which might make things interesting in Brazil where the fans have a boisterous reputation.
‘I just fell in love with the sport'
Armbruster, 41, said she transitioned to goalball from basketball in her teens when optic nerve degeneration gradually took her eyesight. She said she loves team sports and "the team experience."
"Being part of a team is usually what draws a lot of people in, that feeling of ‘I do belong here,’” Armbruster said. “This is a sport that I can play. And I can play with my sighted friends because guess what, I can slap a blindfold on them and take them out here."
U.S. Paralympic teammate Eliana Mason, a senior at Portland State University, said she was introduced to goalball at a sports camp for visually impaired kids during high school.
"I honestly wasn't that into goalball at first,” Mason recalled. “My first practice they just kind of hammered me with balls. Afterwards, I looked at my dad and I was like, 'I don't know if I really like this.'"
"She was a gymnast,” Armbruster said. “I saw her and said, ‘Hey, you're athletic. You really should try.’”
"I just wanted to do handstands on the court,” Mason said.
Mason was born with cataracts and glaucoma, giving her blurry vision. Because goalball players have varying levels of sight, they all wear blackout eye masks so everyone is equally blind on the court. Mason said the competitive aspects of the game eventually hooked her.
"I just fell in love with the sport,” she said. “We play it so much you have dreams about playing the sport. After a training camp I'll wake up with my hands in the air trying to block a ball in my sleep."
Mason, 21, is competing in the Paralympic Games for the first time.
Five-time Paralympian Asya Miller, 36, of Portland said she followed the Olympic Games in Rio to get a sense of what she is in for.
"I'm not expecting to go down there to stay in a 5-star resort. I know that,” Miller said. “I'm going there down there to play. I'll deal with whatever is thrown at me while I'm there but I'm really going down there to play."
From Paralympics to an organized league?
The U.S. women's team enters the Rio Paralympics as the defending world champions in goalball. Their first game is against host country Brazil on September 8.
The troubled economy in the host city and country has forced consolidation of Paralympic Games venues and budget cutbacks, but all planned sports will still be contested.
Ten women's and ten men's goalball teams qualified for the Paralympic Games in Rio. Besides Brazil, the U.S. women's team may also be tested by Canada, Turkey, China and Japan. The Japanese women won gold in London in 2012. Russia will not be at the Rio Games because their entire Paralympic team was excluded due to doping allegations.
The Rio-bound goalball teams have six members each. It's happenstance that half of the U.S. women's team comes from the Portland area. While Mason is a Beaverton native, Miller and Armbruster moved to the Rose City in 2010 when Armbruster took a job as inclusive recreation and fitness coordinator at PSU. Miller and Armbruster are married to each other.
Northwest Association for Blind Athletes Executive Director Billy Henry said participation in goalball at the recreational level "is growing incrementally." He said there are club teams in the region's larger cities such as Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma, Boise, Portland and Vancouver, Washington. The association and educational service districts also support four to five youth teams in Oregon.
Creating an organized league "would be the goal eventually," said Henry. Since 2012, the association and Metro Parks Tacoma have organized a regional goalball tournament in Tacoma each October. PSU and the Washington State School for the Blind also host tournaments. In the visually-impaired population, Henry noted goalball is less popular than tandem cycling, skiing and water sports such as kayaking and paddleboarding.
More 2016 U.S. Paralympians from Oregon and Washington:
- Will Groulx - Portland (Cycling)
- Megan Blunk - Gig Harbor, Wash. (Wheelchair Basketball)
- Josh Brewer - Battle Ground, Wash. (Wheelchair Rugby)
- McKenna Dahl - Arlington, Wash. (Shooting)
- Jillian Petersen - Gig Harbor, Wash. (Paratriathlon)
- Austin Pruitt - Spokane (Track & Field)
- James Stuck - Puyallup, Wash. (Sitting Volleyball)
- David Wagner – Portland (Wheelchair Tennis)
- John Roberts - Eugene, Ore. (Track & Field)
- Aaron Scheidies - Seattle (Cycling)