When Shana Newton injured her hand and was benched for months, she still scheduled and managed the Portland Avalanche goalball team. That’s what team captains do, she said.
Newton also pulled up goalball videos to watch on Youtube. At night, Newton said, she even dreamed goalball dreams.
“It’s really become a lifestyle for me,” Newton, 21, said on Saturday afternoon while her Portland Avalanche teammates were working with out-of-town visitors, the Tacoma Typhoon, to build skills and scrimmage. Everybody was wearing masks across their eyes, she pointed out, because not all goalball players are completely blind — but you want everybody on the court to be playing at an equal level of sightlessness.
Newton herself is a good example. She’s legally but not totally blind, she said. She’s extremely athletic and loves to compete. But when she used to try playing basketball or other sports with sighted friends, “it didn’t work out for me,” she said.
Then she discovered goalball while a student at the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver. Goalball is a three-on-three court sport that was developed 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 now considered the premier team game for blind athletes worldwide.
The Vancouver-Portland area is a hotbed of goalball activity — and other recreations and outings for seeing-impaired people, whether they consider themselves athletes or just plain folks — largely thanks to the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes, a homegrown Vancouver nonprofit agency. The Association works with grants and donations to provide blind people with all sorts of physical fun — from guided hiking to tandem biking and swimming to sailing to judo — that they might not be able to access otherwise.
And, it’s always free, according to program manager Stacy Gibbins. Gibbins said the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes started out serving a handful of people in 2007; nowadays it touches upwards of 1,500 each year with all those programs and outings, as well as its equipment and video lending library.
It’s all about building confidence and fun in a population that’s underemployed and underoccupied, she said.
Athletics “was a piece missing from my life” before she found goalball, Newton said. Now, she dreams of advancing from local to national to international competition, she said — because at those top levels the game is that much more intense.
“You have to earn your way there,” she said. So, at Saturday’s goalball clinic with the Tacoma Typhoon, Newton’s goals were increasing her speed and sharpening her communication skills.
Listening is everything in goalball, and each bout begins with a whistle and a call of “Quiet, please!” The ball is outfitted with chimes that jingle as it moves, so blind people can hear it coming. The defending team’s challenge is to get in front of the ball and block it — often by hurling themselves down on the floor, lengthwise — before it reaches their net. Then one of those players scoops up the ball and blasts or bounces it back toward the opposing goal — as powerfully as possible — while the other team switches to defense and works to block. Before they launch the ball, the offensive players may pass it — either noisily or silently, in which case it’ll surprise the other team as it starts jingling out of nowhere.
One of the most powerful offensive players on the Portland Avalanche team is John Hinman, 30, who started playing 15 years ago in Oregon. “What I like is that it’s such a mental game,” he said. Hinman has helped manage the team for years; now, he said, he’s starting to think about passing the baton.
During the skills clinic, Hinman demonstrated techniques for hurling the ball and for balance and stability exercises that help — like scooting around the floor in a squat.
“Feel me,” he said to one of the Tacoma players, who grasped Hinman’s arms and shoulders to get the point.
“It’s challenging to coach,” said Tacoma coach Heidi Herriott, who is sighted. Players who once had sight may understand certain visual concepts that players who’ve been blind from birth won’t, she said. “How do I describe different moves and different ideas? It’s different for each athlete.”
This area may have lots of outings and opportunities for blind people thanks to the foundation — and the state school for the blind — but that’s not true everywhere, Herriott said. She said she’s lucky to have four or five players turn up for goalball practice in Tacoma. One time, she said, she spotted a man walking with a white cane on the street and hopped out of her car to go recruit him. He was happy to get involved and was at the Vancouver clinic.
“It’s really nice to come down here and mix it up,” she said. “We don’t get to do things like this frequently.”