Athletes With Disabilities Eye College Competition
BERKELEY, Calif. — Growing up blind, the closest Ann Kwong came to a competitive sport, even in P.E., was a marshmallow-eating contest. Judith Lung never learned how to throw a ball.
“I never knew what it was like to block a ball and take one for the team,” said Kwong, a senior psychology major at the University of California, Berkeley.
Now she does. And it happens to be a nearly 3-pound rubber ball with bells inside that she can hear only as it comes bouncing and jingling toward her at as fast as 30 mph.
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College sports teams are all but off-limits to those with disabilities, but UC Berkeley hopes to pry open the door with goalball, a bruising and sometimes bloody sport in which sightless players rely on sound, touch, communication and grit to hurl a sphere roughly the size of a basketball across an 18-meter court, past three opponents and into their goal.
Last fall, Cal became the first in the nation to establish a competitive collegiate goalball team, less than two years after teaching students, both blind and sighted, how to play.
Its advocates hope the coming years will lead to the kinds of inroads for those with disabilities that the Title IX anti-gender-discrimination law did for women — who, as late as the 1960s, were relegated to half-court basketball.
“I would argue that this is one of the civil rights issues of the 21st century,” said Derek Van Rheenen, goalball’s faculty sponsor, who directs UC Berkeley’s Cultural Studies of Sport in Education in the Graduate School of Education.
Between 35 and 50 students who are blind attend the university, said Matt Grigorieff, a graduate student who founded Cal’s Athletics for All to include people with disabilities in recreational and competitive sports.
At a recent scrimmage, a referee reminded everyone to be quiet — an important rule, as the athletes need to be able to hear what’s happening on the court.
He rolled the ball to the team’s freshman star, Will Slason, and blew the whistle. As his two teammates crouched beside him, Slason took a running start, whipping the ball in a bowling motion to the other end of the court and, with a thump, into the chest of Jessica Adams, who had slid to her side on the floor in a successful blocking move.
Adams, who briefly played varsity volleyball at Cal, is the only player on the goalball team with full vision, as current U.S. rules permit. But like everyone else, she wears blackout eyeshades and can see nothing during the game. (The court lines are marked by twine covered in tape, so the players can feel their positions.)
“For sure, the first time you play it’s scary. It’s easy to get disoriented,” Adams said. “It’s also scary playing against Will.”
Known for his power and raw athleticism, Slason wrestled in high school before coming to Cal and said he loves the discipline, teamwork and “never-give-up attitude” of team sports. He is legally blind but can see enough to get around — just not to play sports where, he said “I have to catch a ball flying at my face.”
Players have hip, elbow and knee pads to protect them from all the diving and sliding, but nothing shields their eyes or noses. They quickly learn to guard their faces with outstretched arms during rallies.
Let your guard down for a moment and you can have a bloody nose.
“People with disabilities are seen as these fragile people, which isn’t the case at all,” Kwong said.
The team is coached by Jonathan Newman of the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, Brandon Young, a former Paralympic goalball athlete, and Joe Hamilton, a current player.
It also has an adorable service dog, Van Dyke, who sports a team uniform. Invented after World War II to rehabilitate veterans with disabilities, goalball evolved into a competitive sport and for decades has been part of the Paralympic Games. Elite goalball players throw the ball at up to 50 mph. As in tennis, rallies can happen at a dizzying pace. Matches have two halves, each of 12 minutes, but the clock stops for penalties.
The Cal goalball team already has at least one very influential fan: UC Berkeley’s chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, who said it “exemplifies Berkeley’s commitment to defying limits.”
“I have no doubt others will follow our lead and that our team will soon have no shortage of worthy opponents,” he said.
Until then, the Cal team will play Paralympic club teams, many with far more experienced athletes.
But Portland State University and California State University, Long Beach are building their goalball programs, which are still recreational, and other universities have expressed interest in following Cal’s lead, Grigorieff said.
He dreams that one day soon the NCAA will create a conference for sports like goalball that can include athletes with — and without — disabilities.
“It’s easy to say it’s going to be too complicated, that we don’t have the infrastructure. But we went from one class to three classes with a competitive team, and it really didn’t cost much,” he said. “We’re showing that it can be done.”