Portlander Asya Miller is one of 12 athletes who will represent the United States at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in the sport of goalball. Miller has been playing goalball, a sport for blind or visually impaired athletes, since college. This will be her sixth Paralympic Games.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Geoff Norcross: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Geoff Norcross in for Dave Miller. Imagine someone hurling a three pound ball in your direction and it’s your job to keep it from going into a goal that’s 30 ft wide. Now, imagine doing it without the benefit of sight. That’s the sport for the blind and visually impaired known as goalball. It’ll be a part of the Paralympic Games in Tokyo later this summer. Asya Miller is part of the American goalball team. She lives in the Portland area and she will participate in her sixth Paralympic games this year. Asya Miller, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Asya Miller: Thank you Geoff, I appreciate you having me.
Norcross: It’s great to have you, and we’ll talk about how this game is played. First of all, what got you into this sport?
Miller: I grew up playing sports and when I went to college as an undergraduate at Western Michigan University, that school was best known in-state for having accommodations for people with visual impairments. So there were a lot of other people there like me who were visually impaired, and I had some friends who said, hey, you’re athletic, you should try this. And so I did and I’ve been playing ever since.
Norcross: Did you go to Western Michigan because they were extra accommodating to visually impaired students?
Miller: Yes, that was the primary reason why I applied there and went there. Yes, for sure.
Norcross: Had you heard of goalball before you got to college?
Miller: No, I had not.
Norcross: Oh, what drew you to it?
Miller: I come from an athletic background and I like playing challenging sports, of which it most definitely is, and I appreciate the physicality of it, and the team sport concept isn’t very common for visually impaired athletes. So that’s another reason for it.
Norcross: You played a lot of sports as a kid. How do you compare this sport to other things that you’ve done?
Miller: It is relatable in some ways, like the defense of the game is similar to goalkeeping in soccer, where you’re kind of jumping in front of the ball and trying to block it with your body. And soccer is probably one of [my] favorite [sports] that I played recreationally when I was younger.
Norcross: Can you talk about your visual impairment? What is it that compromises your sight?
Miller: I have a condition called Stargardt’s disease. It is a form of juvenile macular degeneration, and with contact lenses in, my visual acuity is still only 20 over 200, which is the legal limit. For example, if you were 200 ft away and you can read [a] sign, I would have to be 20 ft away to read it.
Norcross: It occurs to me you have some you have some sight in your everyday life, but you’re going to be competing against people who are blind, totally blind. I’m wondering if they might have an advantage over you, because if you have to go completely sightless for the game, and that’s different than your everyday life, then maybe other people who are sightless all the time might have a little bit of an advantage over you. Is that fair to say?
Miller: You know, it’s one way to look at it, but there are other ways to look at it, too. For instance, I’ve had a background in sports which may be different than what they’ve had. So I have that advantage to it. Even if they might have better hand coordination, and I have that. So there are a lot of discussions because there’s no real way to measure that, but it’s definitely something that is talked about a lot.
Norcross: Could you describe the game? How is it played? How does it work?
Miller: I do like your description at the beginning. That was nice. It’s an indoor sport, played on about the size of an international volleyball court. It is three on three. Each team stays at their own end of the court. There’s no intermingling of teams. So, you have this volleyball court, right? Let’s say you put a soccer goal on each end of it, shorten that goal to about 1.5 meters, stretch it. It covers the whole back line. Then we’re going to put lines on the court with string and tape over top of them, so they’re tactile. So that way, you know your orientation. Because the line up on the court, you have a center and two wings. The object of the game is to throw the three pound ball as hard, fast, bouncy, whatever, spinning as you can. And get it passed the three players on the other end who are going to dive in front of it and try and block the ball with their bodies and keep it from going into that net. It is two, twelve minute halves.
Norcross: How do the players know that the ball is coming?
Miller: You have to listen for it… being able to track the ball where it’s coming from. Is it coming smooth? Is it bouncing? Is there a curve ball? You have to pay attention to all of that detail.
Norcross: How do you know that?
Norcross: Okay. And what does the ball sound like when it’s coming at you?
Miller: There are bells in the ball and between the impact of it, like hitting the floor, and the sound of the bells, you’re using your ears to track it, and then you’re trying to place your body in front of where you anticipate the ball is going most of the time.
Norcross: And the audience has to be completely silent while this is happening, so you can actually hear the ball. What is it like to play at the highest level of this sport, in the Paralympic Games, in front of an audience that is silent?
Miller: I don’t know, because that never really happened. People love to watch sports and they love to cheer. [It’s] one of the hardest things about the Paralympic Games. If you have a stadium full of 10,000 people getting them all to be absolutely quiet, especially when there’s an exciting play going on, isn’t the easiest thing to do. Especially when we were down in Rio. They love their sports down there and they’re very passionate about their sports. So we played through a lot of noise, which is challenging. However, with Tokyo having limited spectators, we are probably the only sport who is excited about that. That means it’ll be easier for us, if there aren’t a ton of people in the stands.
Norcross: Good news from Covid-19. It’s interesting you mentioned that because I I watched a goalball match from the Rio games, and there was a public address announcer there who announced what was happening if there was a goal, if the ball was out or whatever, but had to shush the crowd all the time when the clock was running. There was an education about goalball that was going on in the crowd at the time of the game.
Miller: Yes. And a lot of the big games will do that. I remember in Beijing, they had a whole educational and tutorial video and presentation between each of the games, talking about when you’re allowed to make noise and when you can’t. Here, everyone, let’s practice being quiet. Hey, let’s practice cheering.
Norcross: Portland athlete Asya Miller will be competing in the Tokyo Paralympics Games in the sport of goalball. You mentioned COVID-19 and how that’s going to affect the audience. The spectators that are going to be there for your games... at the moment, the Olympic Committee is committed to holding the games this year. Are you concerned about safety at all?
Miller: Nope, not really. Our whole team is fully vaccinated. So, we’re good with that. We have been to Japan in the past. In fact, we went to a tournament there a couple of years ago and we were just walking around Chiba City, which is actually where most of the venues are. We just see random Japanese people walking around the streets with masks on, like they were wearing masks before masks were even cool. So, another way to look at it as a Paralympian too, is that with the Olympics going first, any hurdles, any hitches... they’re going to have to sort that out during that game. That way, when we get there, they should have this streamlined, have this more efficient. Get to test out their protocols.
Norcross: Were you able to get much practice over the last year with COVID-19-related restrictions in place?
Miller: Not as much. We all worked out at home, and the few people who live at our training center in Indiana could train there on a limited basis. But as far as having access to a gym and a court, that part has been very difficult. For me, even the gyms I work out in normally closed the basketball courts. So I’ve had to, starting in November last year, spend more time traveling out to Fort Wayne where our training site is to be able to have training camps there and practice with everyone there.
Norcross: Is there any kind of organized goalball in Portland that you could participate in?
Miller: There has been in the past, but not so much lately. I’ve tried contacting some organizations and because of COVID, nobody has really been doing anything.
Norcross: This is a really unusual training environment that you find yourself in. Do you feel you’re ready?
Miller: Yeah, I do. I think especially as a team we have taken this extra year to get in better shape to develop and train and learning more concepts to add to our game. Like I said, even last weekend, I was in Indiana, out training with the team. So, we’ve definitely taken advantage of this time and used it versus squandering and sitting around.
Norcross: What strengths do you bring to the team there? As you mentioned, there are three players on the court at a time. Is there something you’re especially good at? Are you good at blocking? Are you good at throwing? What do you do really well?
Miller: Well, a little bit of everything else. They wouldn’t be on the team, right? But between me and one of my other teammates, my friend Lisa, who’s five months older than I am... between the two of us, we have so much experience which allows us to handle things like stressful situations. It helps us lead the younger players on the team, and maintain focus and do things like that.
Norcross: This will be your sixth Paralympic games. You’ve competed in other things besides goalball, haven’t you?
Miller: Yes. In Sydney in 2000. I threw discus.
Norcross: How did that go?
Miller: That went well! That was like my personal best throw. I got a bronze medal.
Norcross: What are some of your other favorite memories from representing your country in the games?
Miller: The very first Paralympics you go to for opening ceremonies, when your team is all together and they announce your country and you walk into that stadium full of 110,000 people who are cheering, the camera flashes… that is a unique experience that very few people in the world have. And that’s pretty awesome.
Norcross: What are your plans after this year?
Miller: For the most part, I will retire soon. Not because emotionally or mentally can’t keep up, but my body tells me that I need to stop.
Norcross: So this is it after this year. No more competing.
Miller: No, but I plan on staying involved in [the] sport, whether it’s through coaching or officiating. I even coach track and field, and have my certification for USATF Level-2 throws coach. So I will be involved in sports somewhere, hopefully at the Paralympic level, but I will always want to contribute.
Norcross: I’ve heard from many Paralympians who have said, and they use almost the same language, that if it weren’t for the Paralympic games, I wouldn’t have an opportunity to compete on an international level. This is an incredible opportunity. Is that the case for you too?
Miller: It is true. I can’t see well enough to play things like softball and soccer and other ball sports like that. So yeah, it does provide the opportunity, especially goalball, because there’s not any other team sports for visually impaired, with the exception of five-a-side soccer, which is kind of more recent. But there’s not a lot of opportunities, especially at such ability level.
Norcross: Asya Miller, it was a pleasure to talk to you and best of luck in Tokyo.
Miller: Thank you very much. Geoff.
Norcross: Asya Miller is a Portland Area athlete. She’s competing at the Tokyo Paralympics Games in the sport of goalball.
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