Introducing Goalball, Cal’s most inclusive sport

Player Alec Sundly takes a shot
ERIC CRAYPO/Courtesy
Player Alec Sundly takes a shot

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What do you get when you combine the efforts of the chief medical officer of the Beijing Olympics, a former professional soccer player turned Chancellor’s Public Scholar, a former Paralympic athlete, a coach from the Bay Area Outreach and Recreations Program, the director of the American Cultures Engaged Scholarship program, a Haas scholar, an intern for Fitness for All and a handful of students having fun in the most extraordinary of circumstances?

Meet Cal’s Goalball. Having only finished its first semester, the sport is already making national news.

“UC Berkeley is the first university in America to offer Goalball as an academic class for credit,” Matt Grigorieff, the architect behind the project, proudly tells us. “And that is fantastic.”

The class is a two-unit supplement to “American Sport, Culture and Education,” a class that fulfills the campuswide AC requirement. Each session is split into half theory and half playtime. After students discuss their readings, they engage in a rousing game at the RSF’s Blue Gym, a massive indoor court on the third floor. The game pits two teams of three against each other, and players score by throwing  balls into the opposing team’s goal.

The catch?

All players wear blindfolds.

Playing on a different team

For junior Alec Sundly, D-1 center midfielder for Cal’s men’s soccer team, maintaining leadership on his side of the court is paramount for victory. He nods at his two teammates, completely confident in their game. But this is the first time either player has ever been to the RSF (to say nothing of the fact that neither teammate has never played a sport before in his life). Sundly grins. He whispers a quick strategy, stretches his legs and then leaps into position. He can already feel the win.

The two teams wait for the command from the referee: “Eyeshades down. Quiet, please! Center! Play!”

In a rapid exchange, the bell-containing ball is tossed from one end of the court. Players duck, jump and dive into each other in an effort to protect the goal. Special tape on the floor helps the crawling players to “feel” where they are in the absence of their eyesight. If the team succeeds in blocking a score, possession changes.

Sweat glistens. Lungs expand. In the final score, Sundly’s team edges a narrow triumph of seven points to six. For a varsity Golden Bear, Sundly has a particularly even game. He scores two points! His two teammates, self-described as “athletically challenged,” divide the five. On this court, the playing field is equal.

Fitness for all

Ann Kwong is the internal president for the Disabled Students Union. Unlike Sundly, Kwong is visually impaired and travels around with a cane. Before Berkeley, athletics were the last thing on her mind.

“When I was a child, I never really understood the fascination my sighted peers had with sports,” she admits. “I didn’t feel like I was able to connect with them.”

All of this changed in the past year. Members in the Disabled Student’s Union expressed discontent with being unable to participate in sports teams. From able-bodied basketball to football, disabled students readily acknowledged the lack of athletic opportunities available to them. Then came the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program’s support in establishing Goalball — Berkeley style.

Goalball player makes a pass. Notice the eyeshades.

Goalball player makes a pass. Notice the eyeshades.

Grigorieff and Jessica Adams, both sighted Cal seniors, paired up to organize the discussion part of the class. Teaming with two BORP Goalball coaches, Brandon Young (nonsighted) and Jonathan Newman (sighted), the four have worked to create the most inclusive athletics class in the university’s history. With the guidance of Professor Derek Van Rheenen, the class has attracted students of all abilities.

Kwong beams, “Now, I realize sports are fun. It’s something you have to experience firsthand to understand — the feeling of belonging when you are part of the team or the sense of achievement when you are able to score a goal.” Her voice softening, she adds, “That’s something that rarely happens in reality.”

Fighting stereotypes

Grigorieff incorporates scholarly texts regarding issues within the disabled community in regular discussion. Textbook problems, he has come to realize, are alive in society today.

“A lot of times people, with visual disabilities are sort of seen by the sighted world as a totally helpless person, but that’s not true,” he argues.

Adams adds, “We learned that society tends to polarize nonsightedness. They think it’s black and white. They don’t realize that blindness is a spectrum.”

According to Professor Rod Michalko of the University of Toronto, 97 percent of people with visual impairment can still see. A person is defined as legally blind if he or she cannot recognize the biggest E on an eye chart from 20 feet away.  In this manner, not passing the test really can change a person’s life, as nonsighted individuals undergo such marginalization. One function of Goalball is to address this social stigma head-on. By including input from the entire sight spectrum, participants in the class gain thought-provoking perspectives.

“I feel like it’s the nonsighted students who are teaching the class,” Adams says. “They teach the class by the way they relate to the text.”

Sundly agrees. Input from his nonsighted classmates has challenged his preconceptions and inspired him.

“You build more respect of what (nonsighted people) have to go through on a daily basis, (and) what society is doing is being too judgmental. You learn in playing Goalball that we are all human beings and that we are always equal.”

The feeling of equality is echoed by almost everyone. Kwong says, “I feel like the No. 1 thing I appreciate is everyone is on an equal playing field. I can participate in the same activity with the same ability. Instead focusing on “the strongest” or “the fastest,” goal ball (emphasizes) skills, practice and teamwork – which is a new way to think about sports.”

Goalball player blocking a shot

Sundly’s team blocking a shot

This is not to say that Goalball is not physically demanding. Nonsighted senior Erik Elveback warns against the misconception that Goalball is “easy.” Teammates must coordinate movements through foot-tapping to prevent players from going out of bounds or wandering off the court.

“This sport is very difficult for everybody that plays because for most students, they have never used hearing as the main method of playing a sport,” Adams explains.

Winning off and on the court

Sundly translates skills from Goalball into new techniques to improve his soccer performance. As a midfielder, he lists blocking farther and throwing harder as valuable interdisciplinary lessons Goalball has taught him. Because the ball used in Goalball is heavier than a soccer ball, Sundly has benefited from weight training in a completely unexpected manner. As for foot-tapping, Sundly points out that Goalball has taught him to position himself better on the soccer field as well as give clearer communication to teammates.

Soccer skills were not the only gifts players gained from Goalball. For Young, it is the scale of bonding that has been “mind-altering.” On the last day of practice, Goalball players celebrated with cheers and heartwarming hugs.

Newman points out that the camaraderie is a sign of the game’s success.

He explains, “What I really enjoyed about this class is how much they all liked Goalball. Every single one of them.”

“It creates new friendships that students hadn’t imagined before,” Adams expresses. “I think its true for everybody in the class.”

The future

For Grigorieff, Goalball is set to thrive. His far-reaching plans aim to help everybody involved.

Matt Grigorieff, the architect behind Goalball

Matt Grigorieff, the architect behind Goalball, with a player

“Some people are not included in sports, and that’s something we at UC Berkeley want to change,” he says. “I think Berkeley can lead the way to promote inclusion. Goalball is not only a class but could be a club team for the campus. One day, (it could) turn into a varsity sport with scholarships. We want inclusion at the highest level in varsity sports.”

In the fall semester, Goalball will be available for everyone to play. Many players this semester were so touched that they have indicated they are returning to grow a community.

“I love Goalball and I want to continue assisting it — I believe in the cause,” Adams says, firmly. Then, with a laugh, she admits: “Goalball is pretty tight.”

To see Goalball in action, check out the video here.

Image sources: Eric Craypo, courtesy.

Contact Alex Mabanta at [email protected]

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