On a recent Saturday morning, the dance room in Yosemite Hall on the campus of Sacramento State University has been transformed.
Large metal goals have been erected on each side of the room, and in between, rope has been taped to the floor, marking off sidelines, mid-court and half-court.
Two teams of three face off from either end of the room, each player clad in hip pads, knee pads and goggles. Soon, a blue basketball-sized ball is rolling at high speed back and forth, with each team trying to score on the opposing team, while at the same time protecting their own goals. A sideline judge calls balls out, goals scored and, in between, constantly calls for quiet.
Silence is necessary because this is no typical game. This is goalball, and none of the players can see. They have to hear the tiny bells embedded inside the ball to know where it is and where they need to be to defend the goal.
Invented in post-World War II Europe as a way to assist in the rehabilitation of soldiers blinded during the war, goalball was the first sport designed purely for the vision-impaired. It evolved into an international competitive game over the years, becoming a demonstration event at the 1976 summer Paralympics in Toronto and a full sport four years later.
Sacramento is now home to the reigning national champion men’s team, the Earthquake, a team that practices regularly at Yosemite Hall.
When the men are on the court, the play is fast and furious. And while the rope taped to the floor provides the players with a tactile way to orient themselves, some of the players seem never to refer to it, knowing almost intuitively exactly where they are at all times. They move quickly, scooping up the ball and flinging it toward the opposing goal with a fluidity that belies their lack of vision.
Not all of the players are completely blind; some have more impairment than others, but all wear blacked-out goggles so they can see nothing.
When the women take the court — they’ve recently formed their own local team, the Aftershock — the game slows down a little. Though no less athletic than their male counterparts, the women play with a bit less ferocity, something Davis resident Marissa “Mo” Lindberg appreciates.
Because in a room full of more than a dozen adult players, 11-year-old Marissa is the only child playing goalball. She doesn’t yet move with the speed and power of some of the other players, but she has about her the same fearlessness. In fact, in the year that she’s been playing the game, Marissa has suffered her share of bumps and bruises and even a bloody nose on the court, but she keeps coming back to play, she said, because she loves it.
“She’s got the juice,” says Joe Hamilton, a member of both the Earthquake team and Team USA and unofficial ambassador for the sport.
And although it’s Marissa’s parents, Mike and Nori, who regularly drive her to Sac State to play goalball, it’s Marissa, Hamilton said, “who is the catalyst.”
It was a little over 11 years ago that Marissa arrived in the world 16 weeks early, weighing in at just 1 pound, 8 ounces.
A lot can go wrong when a baby enters the world that early and that small.
Coming as she did at 24 weeks of gestation put her at what some have referred to as “the edge of life”: only half of babies born at 24 weeks in the industrial world will survive, according to the World Health Organization. Many of those who do will face lifelong disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy to respiratory, vision and digestive problems, to learning and developmental delays.
Like her fellow preemies, Marissa spent the first couple of months of her life in the hospital, enduring many of the most common complications and procedures that are part and parcel of life in the neonatal intensive care unit. Chief among those health issues for Marissa was her vision. She eventually would lose sight completely in her right eye and maintain only limited vision in her left.
But it’s never stopped her.
Now 11 years old, Marissa is a voracious reader, using an Enhanced Vision electronic magnifier at home and at school (she’s a sixth-grader at Pioneer Elementary School, where her mom also is a teacher). She plays drums using oversized sheet music with enlarged type and is even teaching herself sign language using her magnifier to study the signs and descriptions in an ASL manual.
She took a few minutes to intently study that manual one recent afternoon to teach herself and a visitor how to sign “interview.”
Her goal in life is to teach visually impaired children.
“She is so intelligent and so amazing,” says Jaye Shupin, an orientation and mobility specialist who has been working with Marissa for the past three years, helping her get used to using a cane, to get around on her own, to take a bus.
Recently, she took Marissa over to Harper Junior High School, to check out the campus she’ll be attending next year, something Marissa is very excited about.
Shupin credits Mike and Nori Lindberg for Marissa’s unlimited potential.
“They are the reason for her success,” Shupin said.
That success has included skiing for the past four years — both cross country and downhill, though she prefers the latter — riding horses, kayaking, swimming with the Aquadarts and even playing soccer.
But goalball is her new favorite activity — well, that and downhill skiing.
She was first introduced to goalball in 2011 when she participated in the Northern California Blind and Low Vision Olympics at Sacramento State. While most of the events she competed in were of the track and field variety — she especially liked the long jump — it was the goalball demonstration that made the lasting impression.
“It looked really fun,” Marissa recalled. Plus, she said, “It was a sport, and there aren’t many sports blind kids can play.”
She gave it a try right then and there, welcomed into the fold by a bunch of adult players who quickly took Marissa under their collective wing.
Not that it wasn’t a little scary at first — especially for mom Nori.
“It’s hard to watch your little 10-year-old playing with all of these 35-year-old men,” she noted.
But mom needn’t have worried.
When Marissa is on the court, the other players are always aware of her presence, calling out to each other where she is — “right wing,” “center” — and always encouraging her.
“Take it to ‘em, Mo,” Hamilton yelled during a practice game recently. “Take it to ‘em.”
When players rotate positions, coach Matt Boyle calls out, “Remember, Mo’s in the center down here.”
When she blocks a ball, a cheer erupts.
The one thing that would make goalball even more fun, Marissa said, is if more kids were playing.
Hamilton agrees. He started playing goalball in Michigan when he was about Marissa’s age.
“It’s so much fun,” he said. “The camaraderie of the team, the atmosphere. It’s a good thing for everybody.”
“Being blind, you have to adapt to a different lifestyle,” he noted.
And playing goalball helps by strengthening the skills needed for that, from teamwork to communication, spatial awareness to active listening.
“The younger they start, the better,” Hamilton added.
For her part, Marissa has been recruiting where she can, even getting a few classmates to give goalball a try. Anyone is welcome to play at the recreational level, since everybody has to wear the goggles anyway.
But unlike with other sports that are adapted for the blind, goalball was created especially for the visually impaired and requires sighted players to make the most adaptations.
“What’s really wonderful about this game is that blind people are so much better at it,” said Shupin, since they are more used to relying on their other senses.
As for Marissa, regardless of whether her recruitment efforts succeed, she said she’ll be out there playing goalball for the foreseeable future. That is, when she’s not skiing or kayaking or teaching herself sign language.
Note: To see goalball in action, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zj6galPLxmQ to watch a match from the 2012 Paralympic games in London.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at email@example.com or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy