Goalball's goal: Championship of the blind

McLoughlin Middle hosts national tournament; volunteers are needed

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter



You wouldn't think of a blind person who kicked your butt in sports competition primarily as blind. You'd think of that person as the winner who kicked your butt.

That's Billy Henry's mission: facilitating some serious butt-kicking by blind and visually impaired people — especially young people — all over America.

Henry, whose optic nerve hypoplasia renders him legally blind, used to go to his sighted brother's basketball games and sit on the sidelines. His parents diligently hunted for appropriate sports opportunities for him, he said, but those remained rare until he discovered powerlifting.

If you go

• What: 2013 National Goalball Championship Tournament, hosted by the Northwest Association of Blind Athletes. (Volunteers are needed, especially Friday and Saturday.)

• When: 6 p.m. today (opening ceremonies, tournament play); 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday (tournament play); 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday (tournament play).

• Where: McLoughlin Middle School, 5802 MacArthur Blvd., Vancouver.

• Cost: Free and open to the public, but donations are requested.

• Information: 360-448-7254 or the Northwest Association of Blind Athletes website

It was love at first lift, and Henry vowed to spread that same sort of love — the love of sports and fitness — to more kids like him. He founded the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes in his Hazel Dell home in 2007, when he was all of 15 years old. (A friend of legal age had to sign the paperwork.) The effort was aided by local philanthropist and restaurateur Mark Matthias, whose $1,000 in seed money paid for powerlifting equipment and passage to a tournament where Henry lifted his way to a championship.

Now, at the advanced age of 21, Henry is executive director of a fast-growing nonprofit agency with an office in downtown Vancouver, a van, an annual budget of approximately $150,000 in grants and gifts, and a track record of helping thou

sands of visually impaired people try out sports and physical activities, from wrestling and golf to biking and hiking. Henry figures he touched more than 1,000 people in 2012 alone,.

Here's the real butt-kicker: Henry's agency will host this year's national goalball championship tournament, tonight through Saturday at McLoughlin Middle School. Everyone is invited to check it out — and, late on Wednesday, word went out that volunteers are desperately needed, especially on Friday and Saturday.

"This competition is for the national championship," Henry said. "We are really excited to host this phenomenal event here in Vancouver."

At last count, Henry said, 135 "parathletes" have registered from as far away as New York and Florida. There will be 12 men's teams and seven women's teams, including the home team, the Portland Avalanche.

And there'll be local players like 18-year-old Nathan Purcell, whose strong throwing arm and uncanny aim earned him a place on the Youth World Team that will compete in Colorado Springs, Colo. later this year, and 25-year-old Sonja Steinbach, who just finished up two master's degrees at Portland State University.

"I love to play sports," said Steinbach, whose childhood in Stanwood, north of Seattle, was totally sports-deprived, she said — until age 14, when she attended a camp for visually impaired kids here in Vancouver. She never, so to speak, looked back.

Ball, bell and mask

Goalball is a three-on-three court sport developed in Europe in the aftermath of World War II as a way to help rehabilitate blinded war veterans. It became a regular part of the summer International Paralympic Games in 1980, and is considered the premiere team game for blind athletes worldwide.

A Monday morning practice session at the Washington State School for the Blind gymnasium revealed a muscular back-and-forth contest that borrows equally from soccer and bowling. Each team consists of a center and two wings who stick close to their goal line to play defense; when they're on offense, their task is to throw or roll the big blue goalball past their opponents and across their goal line. Players wear darkened masks so nobody enjoys an advantage; behind those masks, all are equally blind. Touch your mask during play and you draw a penalty.

You also draw a penalty for being noisy, because those hurtling goalballs contain small jingling bells. Everyone needs to stay quiet while play is under way, Henry said; even fans in the bleachers don't get to cheer until there's a pause in the action. When you hear the ball bearing down on you, you've got microseconds to block it — usually by dropping onto your side and stretching long to form a wall with your body. You better believe the players wear padding and protection.

Monday morning practice started sluggish but before long the goalball was bursting past some of these human walls; players huddled to review how much space they were covering and how to move in a carefully choreographed defensive unit.

Players sometimes grabbed up the ball, jumped to their feet and hurled it back where it came from; other times they'd back up, feeling for the goal with one hand, in order to solidify their sense of position on the court before throwing. There wasn't much passing, but Henry said a really good team will pass plenty, confusing its opposition. "There is a lot of strategy," he said. Each game half lasts 12 minutes.

On the court Monday morning, Steinbach struggled to keep some pitches in bounds, and let a couple of balls sneak past her into the goal; but she also blocked plenty of shots most impressively, and finally launched one rocket of a pitch that blasted past the defense and brought her some delayed glory.

"That's 'cuz I got ticked off at people doing that to me!" she declared.

Increased visibility

The price of a single goalball has dropped to "only" $100, Henry said. "The cost for adaptive equipment is so high," he said, which is why the NWABA makes some grants of equipment or funds to people who apply, but mostly functions like a lending library. Henry said a teacher in Spokane wanted to show her kids how goalball works; NWABA shipped her the ball to use for a while, and she shipped it back.

Goalball is one of about 10 different sports and activities he regularly introduces to folks who never thought they could do anything of the kind, he said.

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, there are just under than 130,000 people in Washington state who are blind or have "serious difficulty" seeing even with glasses or contact lenses. Henry said approximately 70 percent of visually impaired people have "never experienced any sports or physical fitness activity at all." Plus, he added, approximately 70 percent of all blind and visually impaired people are unemployed and otherwise "underinvolved" in mainstream life.

To remedy this, Henry — who's also a full-time Clark College business administration student — spends much time in the NWABA office scouring professional journals and other sources for new ways to adapt games, pastimes and equipment so visually impaired people can enjoy them. Then he takes that knowledge and equipment on the road, going into classrooms or holding special clinics that draw visually impaired people together for an experience that's both athletic and social.

"Imagine if you're the only blind person in a high school of 2,000," he said. "Meeting some others is a pretty cool experience. It's a big thing."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits