Balls filled with bells will clang in Vancouver this weekend as the city hosts the country’s first-ever college goal ball tournament.
Teams from three schools will compete in the unusual sport that offers vision-impaired athletes the chance to play a sport that isn’t dependent on eyesight.
The Portland State University goal ball team has been practicing they’re defense. They play with a blue ball. It’s the size of a basketball and twice as heavy.
The player on offense winds up and then rolls it down the court as hard as they can, like a bowler. The defenders fling their bodies in front of the ball to stop it.
How does that feel?
“It hurts. It’s a good kind of pain though,” Tasha Everett, a petite sophomore with dark hair who plays for PSU says.
Everett chose to attend PSU because it’s one of just a few schools in the country that has a goal ball team.
“I just love the fast paced team aspect of it, because there’s not a lot of sports visually-impaired people can play, so it’s just nice to be part of a team like this.”
Everett can’t see out of her right eye, and the vision in her left eye is blurry.
That’s not an issue in goal ball. The sport is all about hand-ear coordination. Players track the ball by listening to it. It’s filled with bells.
The lines on the court are marked with string that players can feel with their feet. And spectators are not allowed to cheer.
PSU’s first game in the first college tournament ever will be against Berkeley. Then, they play Slippery Rock University.
Eliana Mason steps away from practice for a minute and slips a pair of goggles off her head.
“I’d let you try these on, but they’re kind of gross, so you probably don’t want to. You can see that they’re completely blacked out,” Mason says.
Every player wears black-out goggles, so that everyone’s equally blind on the court. Three of the players on PSU’s team have regular sight.
Mason is tall and slender. She was a cheerleader in high school and played soccer growing up. Like Everett, she has sight in one eye, but her vision is limited.
On the soccer field, she was frustrated at how much time she spent searching for a ball.
“You have to take ten more steps to try to even get to the level of someone who’s sighted. When I played soccer, I’d spend half the time trying to track the ball and by the time I saw it, it was already kicked somewhere else.”
Goal ball, she says, lets her be competitive and excel. Mason has played on the national team for women age 19 and under. She’s pretty good. But on Sunday, Mason’s going up against a player who, in the tight-knit world of goalball, is, well, a giant.
“He’s 6-6, so he covers a lot of the court.” In addition to his intimidating wingspan, Slippery Rock’s star is training to qualify to play goal ball at the Paralympic games. His full name is Calahan Young.
“I think it’s cool that I’m at that level where people have to actually worry about me,” Young admits.
Young, who is also visually impaired, wakes up at 5 am three days a week to run and weight lift before class. He’s hoping the tournament this weekend will inspire more universities to create goal ball teams. He dreams of helping build a real colleague league for goal ball, like the NCAA.
“I’ve always wanted to play football for a university or play a university sport and now I’m being given the chance to, it’s amazing.”
Back at PSU, Eliana Mason and her coach are discussing their odds. “I don’t know the rest of Slippery Rock’s peeps.”
“As long as we play defense, we should be good.”
“I don’t want to lose!”
But, Mason says, what’s more important than winning is getting more people involved in the game at the college level. Maybe even enough to create a women’s division someday.