Thursday, June 17, 2010

Goalball keeps blind people fit

From Seattle Times. In the picture, from left, Yang-su Cho and Barbara Choi lunge for the ball during a recent Goalball game.

The players wear eye patches. At either end of a nearly silent indoor basketball court in Seattle, they crouch on hands and knees like people crawling around in the dark — which in a real sense, they are.

From one side, Telea Noriega — blind since birth — takes a rubber ball and whips it, bowling-ball-style, toward the other team as the opponents wait, momentarily still and all ears. In the quiet of the gym, the sleighlike jingling of the bell-embedded ball telegraphs its path and speed for those who have learned to listen well.

Goalball is one of 22 sports played at the international Paralympic Games and the premiere team game for blind athletes, the only one created specifically for them.

Now, with a regular practice space at Franklin High School, some local enthusiasts want to give Seattle its first goalball team in 30 years, hoping to raise physical activity among a group with few such opportunities and to instill the life skills that sports can promote.

"For blind and visually impaired people, sports are so much more," said Billy Henry, of the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes. "They have the confidence to go out and find work. It's a real self-esteem builder."

Originally designed in Austria for World War II vets who'd lost their vision, goalball is like soccer, though players stay on their side of the court. "They can throw curves, change-ups and spins," said Mark Lucas, executive director of the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). "There's all kinds of strategy, offensively and defensively."

It's a tactile, auditory sport rather than one based on hand-eye coordination. Each team consists of three players, each positioned within individual boundaries lined with tape. Eye patches level the field, making players totally sightless if they weren't already.

The object is to get the ball past the other team while keeping it inbounds. Through its jingling bell, defenders must quickly gauge a ball's course and then lean over to catch it or splay themselves lengthwise to block it.

At the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, the U.S. men's goalball team came in fourth and the women's team edged out China 6-5 to win a gold in front of 16,000 spectators.

"It was one of the coolest things ever in my 17 years with USABA," Lucas said.

He estimates about 40 men's and women's goalball teams throughout the United States, with another dozen or so youth squads. "There's a pipeline of athletes coming up," he said. "We're looking beyond the 2012 Paralympics in London. We're looking toward Rio. We are building an infrastructure so that we are on the medal stand there."

Seattle's Noriega, a 43-year-old Samoa native who grew up in his adoptive family in Oregon, is an accomplished athlete who wrestled and played football from fifth grade into high school. An off-and-on goalball player since 1983, he has a strong upper body, a wicked serve and an uncanny sense for the ball, relentless in its pursuit, crawling in high gear.

"I'm gonna have to go get some elbow pads," he said. "That's my style, is to go after that ball."

Obesity is one of the primary health problems affecting blind and visually impaired people, often the result of a lack of exercise.

Blind kids, said the USABA's Lucas, sometimes spend physical-education classes tucked away in Braille sessions, unable to develop skills that sighted people take for granted — mobility, intuition and the ability to win or lose gracefully on or off the playing field.

Inactivity can breed a lack of confidence, which makes it that much harder to find work. According to Lucas, the blind/visually-impaired community's jobless rate is as high as 70 percent.

"You feel like you cannot do things physically," said Seattle's Yang-Su Cho, who lost his sight to glaucoma at age 20 and is helping Noriega organize Seattle's goalball team.

That's why he considers efforts to bring the sport here so important. "Most times [blind people] just sit down, read books or whatever," he said. "With this, they can be really active."

At an early practice session, held at a church gym on Capitol Hill, he helped a woman in brown fleece position herself on the court.

"So this is the back corner, where I'm at?" she asked.

"Yes," Cho said. "Always you stay behind that line. Otherwise you are going to collide with the center."

The session drew about a dozen blind and visually impaired people of all ages, from 11-year-old Su Park to 43-year-old Tacoma resident John Simms, who appreciated the chance to be around other blind people beyond a work setting. Like about half of Seattle's goalball participants, Simms works at Seattle's Lighthouse for the Blind, a nonprofit agency offering vocational services.

"Let's face it," he said, stretching in his Seattle Mariners shirt. "It's been a long time since I did any working out. I'm gonna feel it."

Before long, the novice players were rolling and sprawling on the gym floor under the direction of Noriega, a former national-level competitor for a team of players from Portland and Vancouver, Wash.

The best offense, it seemed, was either a fastball — one that whipped through the defense faster than players could react — or one that rolled so slowly the bells inside could barely be heard.

"The trick is to actually listen," Su said. "Even the quiet ones can be caught."

Not long ago, local community activist Patt Copeland took a small group of players down to Vancouver to compete against a far more experienced team at the State School for the Blind. Players at the school practice four times weekly and wear team uniforms.

"This is the first time we're going to play somebody other than us," Noriega told the group before they departed. "We've made a lot of improvements. We're going to treat this like it's a Lakers-Blazers rivalry."

The women's team lost 4-2, and the men's team seemed destined for a worse drubbing: At the end of the first half, the school team led 9-2.

Then, as Copeland put it, "Telea put himself in and scored nine points." The edge-of-your-seat second half ended with the Seattle group falling 13-11.

They returned without a win, but their comeback against a superior squad left them with something more important: a sense of identity. "I think they felt really good that they did well," said Copeland, whose father, Arthur, co-founded the USABA. "We changed down there."

Last month, Noriega led a goalball demonstration and practice game for students — four of them visually impaired — at an elementary school in Monroe. The group hopes to conduct similar events at other schools and to introduce the sport to rehab programs for newly blind war veterans.

"This is a thing we want to get really established in Seattle," Noriega said. "We're the foundation."