Play Ball! Blind Athletes in Berkeley
By Lauren Gard, September 26, 2002 03:15 PM
Find Fun, Fellowship in Novel Sport
BERKELEY -- Lisa Greco is a goalball pro -- she's been playing the sport for 21 years.
"It's a game that blind people can excel at -- sometimes better than other people," the 34-year-old computer consultant says, pulling a kneepad into place before the start of the regular Wednesday night practice in the gymnasium at the Berkeley Adult School on University Avenue.
Greco describes the game, invented by German and Austrian doctors in 1946 in an effort to rehabilitate blind war veterans, as "dodgeball to lose."
Two teams made up of three players each attempt to roll a ball across their opponent's goal line, while the opposing team does everything humanly possibly to stop it -- most often by diving sideways and sliding across the floor to block it. Bells within the ball -- a basketball-size three-pounder that cost $125 -- jingle as it rolls. The smoother and faster a player can roll it, the less the bells jingle -- in high-level games players may roll it at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour.
According to Jim Leask, goalball chairman for the International Paralympic Committee, 7,000 people in 110 countries worldwide participate in goalball; in the United States there are about 1,000 players. Of the 18 sports comprising the Paralympics in Sydney in 2000, he says goalball was the third most popular, attracting 180,000 spectators.
Coach and referee Jonathan Newman started the program 14 years ago as a volunteer and now works for its sponsors, Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program and the Adult School. The Berkeley resident describes the 20 players on his roster as a high-achieving group who come together to create a special environment.
For some, the game is primarily a social outlet. For others, it's a sport they can compete in seriously -- often for the first time in their lives.
"Instead of having the disability be sort of the focus of what they can't do, it becomes a non-factor," Newman says. "It creates a lot of positive energy."
That energy has taken some of the athletes far. Jessica Lorenz, 23, went to the World Championships in Rio de Janiero in early September as a member of the U.S. National team, which won. Greco, 34, represented her native Canada in the 1988 Paralympics in Korea in what she calls "the most exciting, stimulating event of my life" and brought home a bronze medal.
Lisamaria Martinez, an exuberant UC Berkeley senior majoring in social welfare, has been practicing judo for 4 years but wanted to try a sport that might take her to an upcoming Paralympics. The 21-year-old, who joined the team in January, works diligently on her form when she's not in the game, going over the motions of rolling the ball again and again.
Maia Scott, a coordinator for Theater Unlimited/RCH Inc. in San Francisco, nuzzles a gentle black Labrador retriever named Selma during time out. She gasps and giggles as the ball whizzes past the players or is blocked in the nick of time.
"You know what I love about goalball?" the 31-year-old asks. "It's one of the few sports I can enjoy as a spectator."
Newman says the players are so confident in their ability to mentally place the ball on the court that they don't hesitate to challenge his calls.
"I wouldn't want to see it in replay," he says of a recent penalty he assigned a player. "They know when something is a high ball [an illegal roll] -- they can tell by the sound of the bells, and by the time of release and time of hit. It's just amazing."
Absolute silence is required during the game -- made up of two ten-minute halves -- but when goals are scored or the ball rolls out of bounds the gymnasium fills with cheers and groans. And everyone laughs when Newman, who doesn't recognize the deep grumbling of an airplane flying overhead, pauses the game, head nervously cocked, trying to identify the sound -- because they all know immediately.