Jen Armbruster, Asya Miller and Eliana Mason will all compete in goalball. It’s a team sport designed for visually impaired athletes.
Jen Armbruster is 41 years old and works at Portland State University. This is her seventh time competing in the Paralympics.
She plans to retire after the Rio games.
“It means a lot to me to put the Stars and Stripes on. As a military kid, I lost my vision before I could go into the military and represent my country that way,” she said. “So to be able to put the uniform on for the U.S. and represent not just myself or my team, but our entire country, it’s a huge honor, for sure.”
The U.S. goalball team won gold in Beijing in 2008 but failed to medal in London four years later. Armbruster is hoping to bring home one more gold medal from Rio.
She slowly lost her vision as a teenager. Something inflamed her optic nerves. Doctors never found a cause. They said it might have been due to a virus, or radiation from the Chernobyl Disaster.
Goalball has been central to her life and her family since then. Her father coaches the U.S. Paralympic team. And Armbruster met her wife, Asya Miller, playing goalball. Miller is also on the Paralympic team. They married in 2007 and have a 5-year-old son.
“Reality is starting to hit that this is it. It’s been an awesome journey for sure,” Armbruster said. “I think it’s ending maybe a little sooner than maybe I thought it would. My wife always thought they would have to drag me off the court. I do love playing, I love competition, I love representing the U.S., I love being a part of a team.”
Goalball is played on a court the size of a volleyball court, using a weighted ball filled with bells that the athletes can hear as it rolls across the court.
It’s an intensely physical sport. The players dive and hit the ground up 100 times per game.
This year marks Eliana Mason’s first time on the U.S. Paralympic goalball team. Mason is a senior at PSU and has been training with Armbruster. Mason will celebrate her 21st birthday the day she leaves for Rio.
“Once I’m in the groove of the game I’m locked in and focused, but right before the game when we’re doing our team chant, I know I’m going to feel pretty nervous about stepping on to the courts,” Mason said.
Mason was born with cataracts and glaucoma. She’s essentially blind in her left eye. She can see a little out of her right eye. She grew up trying to keep up with her two brothers, never really thinking of herself as disabled. She played soccer, even though it was hard to track the ball.
In goalball, the athletes all wear blackout goggles so everyone is equally blind.
Mason said competing internationally has helped her find role models.
“I discovered goalball [during my] junior year of high school, which is a time where everybody is finding who they are in general. Finding goalball at that point was really good for me because it helped me become comfortable and confident with my vision,” Mason said. “Everyone has vision loss for different reasons in goalball. You won’t find two people with the same story.”
Mason and Armbruster will fly to Rio Sept. 1. They’ll compete against goalball teams from around the world including Brazil, Algeria, China and Ukraine.
You can follow the games on the U.S. Women’s Goalball Facebook page.