Doug Ripley, a player with the Vancouver Goalball Club and a member of Team Canada for goalball, blocks a shot from the U.S.A team during the 2019 Vancouver Goalball Grand Slam at Guildford Recreation Centre on Saturday (March 9). (Photo: Lauren Collins)

‘More of a visualization’: Blind athletes take court at Surrey goalball tourney

Players wear opaque eyemasks so they ‘cannot see anything’

When Amy Burk plays goalball, she says it has become easy to visualize where the ball is and which direction it’s coming from despite wearing an opaque visor, preventing her from seeing anything.

Goalball, according to Canadian Blind Sports, is played exclusively by athletes who are blind or visually impaired. The ball has bells inside which allows the players to listen for the ball.

Teams consist of six members, with only three playing at a time. However, when playing goalball, all players must wear opaque eyeshades (or visors) at all times to ensure the players “cannot see anything regardless of their degree of visual impairment,” Canadian Blind Sports says.

“It’s like we’re so used to it… that putting the visor on changes nothing. When I play, I can see my teammates — I mean I quote-unquote see — I can see them block the ball, I can see where we throw down the court, what the other team is doing. So if they’re moving, I can visualize that happening and watch the ball come back,” Burk told the Now-Leader during the 2019 Vancouver Goalball Grand Slam in Guildford over the weekend.

Burk, who has albinism, says her “visual field would be 20/200.”

“So what you would see at 200 feet, I would see at 20 feet. That’s, I think, 10 per cent of your vision.”

But for Burk, even with the eyemask on, she said, “It’s like I’m not totally blind at all.”

“It kind of becomes more of a visualization… Our team, we probably don’t even need to talk to each other because we can hear where someone is and then it’s kind of like I can see where someone is going,” said Burk, adding that it’s the same when visualizing the players at the other end of the court.

“I can see the centre handing the ball off to the right-winger and then I can tell that they’re moving to come around, so then we shift to that. It’s just mind-bogging just how you can visualize all of that happening.”

That wasn’t always the case for Burk, who plays with the Canadian national team.

“I did not like it a first… I was 13 and I showed up at their practice and their was national-team calibre athletes there and I saw it, and I’m like, ‘There is no way I’m going to throw myself in front of that ball or even get hit with it — especially when you can’t see it.’”

Burk said it was a year before she tried the sport for a second time.

“Oh, it was scary. I mean, you grow up with your vision, you see everything — I’m a visual learner — and then you just go black. All of a sudden, you don’t know where anything is. Your surrounding has just been totally flipped upside down, and it was scary,” she said. “Then you hear this ball coming at you so fast, it’s like, ‘I’m not getting in front of that, not a chance.’”

The now 28-year-old has been playing the sport for 15 years and has been a part of Team Canada since 2005.

“It’s very cliché sounding, but I get to represent Canada which is amazing. I’ve met so many friends from sport, from travelling. I met my husband through sport.”

But the sport still isn’t well-known, Burk said.

“Chances are, (people) haven’t heard of it. I mean that’s understandable because we are the only sport that doesn’t have an able-bodied comparison, like if you’re basketball, you have wheelchair basketball.”

Over the weekend in Surrey, though, people had a chance to try out the sport during the grand slam at the Guildford Recreation Centre.

“We make it look so easy, and then you put the visor on the for the first time and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I really can’t see anything.’ Then you forget how to walk, so it’s just crazy taking away that one sense,” said Burk.

Doug Ripley, who plays goalball with the Canadian National Team, said it was a pretty good turnout Saturday morning (March 9).

“I know what it’s like to watch a sport that seems a bit confusing, but once you try it, you’ll really understand the dynamic of what’s going on and really can respect when you go and watch a high-level game.”

Ripley, 45, said he began playing the sport in his teens.

“Being a visually impaired kid, at that time too, it was really freeing to play a sport that I could compete in at a higher level and aspire to go somewhere. Whereas, I have enough vision that I could be alright at some of the other sports, but never really go very far in them,” said Ripley, who has juvenile macular degeneration, which means he doesn’t have any central vision, only peripheral.

“I don’t see any detail, so for reading and recognizing faces and stuff, is obviously much harder for me. But I’m probably not going to bump into something, generally.”

This is the first time Surrey has hosted the tournament, but Karin Pasqua said it won’t be the last, adding that the City of Surrey is already confirmed for holding the event next year.

Pasqua, an accessibility and universal design specialist with the city, said, “It’s fantastic just to have something completely different to try and do. It’s something that most people have never heard of, let alone tried.”

She said the city has been given a goalball kit, adding that she hopes to start some goalball programming or partnering with the school district to have kids come in and try.

Goalball, according to the Canadian Paralympic Committee, goalball was invented in 1946 “in an effort to rehabilitate veterans with a visual impairment who returned from World War II.” It was introduced to the world at the 1976 Paralympic Games in Toronto, and a women’s tournament was added at the 1984 Paralympic Games.

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