Learning to hear emotions: My first experience with the Paralympic sport of goalball

Every sound is amplified in the silence of the gym as the referee yells out to quiet the crowd. She takes her spot, bending over, eye level with the playing field. As the whistle echoes, the game of goalball begins.

The first two weeks of July, the 2019 IBSA Goalball and Judo International Paralympic Qualifiers were hosted in Fort Wayne. As an intern in the city this summer, I headed over to Indiana Tech to watch the girls USA team fight for a spot in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, and see what the sport was all about.

Goalball players block the ball from the opposing team.

When I got there, I was thankful that I decided to check it out. This tournament is the largest international sporting event to ever be hosted in Fort Wayne.

With more than 40 countries, it was amazing to see that the language barrier was almost non-existent. There’s simply a bond in knowing that the love and passion for this sport is what brought everyone together. Clapping patterns erupt among the teams, and the benches rumble as the crowd yells out. It creates an aura of encouragement and support encompassing the whole facility.

The crowd cheered on the girls USA team in their fight for a spot in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

Goalball is a sport designed for athletes with visual impairments. It’s similar to soccer, or “dodgeball in reverse.” Three teammates guard their goal on each side of the court, and the game is played by passing and blocking the ball, which has a bell in it. Each athlete wears goggles to turn their vision completely black to create an even playing field among participants of varying visual abilities. When the game is going, the room is silent so the players can hear the ball.

The room is silent as the game begins so players can hear the ball.

Even in the audience, your senses are heightened as you watch players feel their way around the court, following the path of tape to mark their spots, and diving at the sound of the bell. Each movement made is precise as players spin to wind up and bounce the baby blue ball across the gym.

Pure curiosity led me through the doors of Indiana Tech this particular day and into the path of a true inspiration: Lisa Czechowski, a member of the qualifying USA women’s goalball team.

The women's USA goalball team rallies for a win.

As I sit with her, she goes back in time, telling me about her journey that led her here. Growing up with a visual impairment, Czechowski struggled with confidence as young adult until she found herself a home in track and field.

“A good friend of mine was doing it and said, ‘Why don’t you try it, it doesn’t require much vision; I mean, it’s a circle; it’s a track,’” Czechowski explains.

While she enjoyed track for awhile, she injured herself trying hurdles. That injury led her to her real passion: shotput and discus.

When an adaptive physical education teacher in New Jersey suggested the idea of goalball to her, she was hesitant to try it at first. After achieving success in able-bodied sports, she saw it as a step back to take part in a sport made for blind athletes.

Goalball is played on a volleyball court with soccer-like nets.

“I wasn’t going to see the competitiveness or feel the confidence I was feeling, so it took them awhile to get me involved,” she says. “My first practice was October of 1995, and it was a three-hour practice that completely changed my life. It was amazing.”

Practicing four to five days a week on the court, doing strength and conditioning three days a week, and agility and yoga on other days, Czechowski built a life around goalball and got a spotn on Team USA. She feels inexplicably proud of her team as they now look forward to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

To her, goalball is more than just a sport; it led her to her mentors, friends, and her husband, pulling her down a different path than she originally expected and changing her life for the best.

The ball for goalball has a bell in it so players can hear it coming.

More than 40 countries were represented at the 2019 IBSA Goalball and Judo International Paralympic Qualifiers in Fort Wayne.

One of the biggest questions I had for her was how her team members manage to communicate on the court—if they even could at all. She explained that a lot of what we say comes through in our voice and emotions.

“You just know through conversation—the tone of the voice—you can communicate that way,” she says. “And just emotion—you can almost hear a smile when someone is talking to you. You don’t need to see it; you can just hear it and feel it through the moment.”

Her answer to this question touched my heart in a way I can’t explain. I was smiling, and I hoped she could hear it.

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