Blind athletes chase Paralympic dreams

By Fabian Mayer

Imagine a 1.3 kilogram ball coming at you with a speed of over 50 kilometres per hour. You must defend a nine-metre wide net and can block the ball with any part of your body. And one more thing — you can’t see anything. Welcome to the sport of goalball.

Going down stairs without the benefit of sight is challenging enough for most of us. Playing any sort of sport is almost unthinkable. Goalball is a sport specifically designed for people who are blind and visually impaired. It is a Paralympic event and one of the most popular sports for the blind around the world.

Goalball is played on a court with dimensions similar to a volleyball court. There are two teams of three players on the court at one time. Gameplay consists of teams rolling a ball, roughly the size of a basketball, from their third of the court and attempting to score on the other team’s net.

The ball has bells on the inside, so the players rely on their hearing and positioning in order to make saves. While watching a local team’s practice in southwest Calgary, it was impressive to see the fast-paced nature of the game.

Players rolled the ball with speed and accuracy, picking corners with ease. Even more impressive was the fearlessness the players showed as they threw their bodies in front of the ball having little idea of where it would hit them.

Aron Ghebreyohannes plays with the Alberta team and is also on the national team. Ghebreyohannes’s interest in the game was piqued in 2006 at a camp that aimed to get youth involved in the sport — he has been playing ever since.

Ghebreyohannes talked about the many benefits he has gotten out of the sport since he first picked up a ball. While things like improved fitness and enjoyment may be obvious, other benefits were unexpected.

“Personally, the sport has brought out characteristics in myself that I probably never would have been able to express without sport. It helped my confidence as well as my fitness level,” said Ghebreyohannes.

The possibility of being a Paralympian lies just two years away for Ghebreyohannes — he is aiming for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. His Alberta teammate, Blair Nesbitt is a bit further removed from making the Paralympic Games, yet he remains determined. Nesbitt identifies the goal of making it to the Games as a driving factor behind his training.

“I have dreams of being in the Paralympics. That would be pretty cool,” said Nesbitt. “To be on the world stage where people can actually see your sport would be incredible.”

Like any other competitive sport, the participants are tuned, high-performance athletes, something that Ghebreyohannes confirmed when he spoke of his training.

“We practice on court on the weekends and then we have fitness training, strength training and cardio throughout the week at the Oval,” said Ghebreyohannes.

Goalball was invented in 1946 to help in the rehabilitation of veterans of the Second World War. Since then it has grown into a sport that is played in over 100 countries around the globe.

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