The sound of a jangling bell trapped in a rubber ball interrupted the regular thumps of bouncing basketballs in the Recreational Sports Facility’s Blue Gym on Friday.
For the three members of the goalball team the ball rolled toward — all of whom were wearing black-out goggles — the sound of the bell was a signal to hit the ground to stop the ball’s advance. Unlike other sports, goalball is specifically designed for visually impaired individuals.
“When I was in high school and middle school, blind people didn’t do sports,” said Ann Kwong, a UC Berkeley senior who is visually impaired and who is one of the eight goalball team members. “Our gym class was sitting on a floor stuffing as much marshmallows in our mouths as possible.”
For most of the team’s players — all of whom are visually impaired — goalball is their first exposure to competitive sports.
Goalball was initially intended to rehabilitate visually impaired veterans. It has since evolved from a rehabilitative effort to a competitive sport and is one of the events featured at the Paralympic Games.
Two three-player teams square off on a 59-foot court — about two-thirds the size of a basketball court — and navigate by using strips of rope taped down to the floor. Teams score points by throwing the ball past the other team’s players, and whoever has the most points at the end wins.
Once in possession of the ball, a player takes a bowler’s stance and hurls the ball toward the opponents. As the ball speeds toward the defenders, players throw themselves flat to block the ball, catching it with their thighs, stomachs, hands and — on one save — the tips of their feet.
Friday’s practice was for the advanced goalball class, offered as an optional supplement to an undergraduate course on sports and disability, taught by Derek Van Rheenen, an assistant adjunct professor in the campus Graduate School of Education.
“(Goalball) inverts the relationship of privilege,” Van Rheenen, who also directs the campus Athletic Study program. said. “Visually impaired students are at an advantage.”
Van Rheenen first taught the class during the spring semester last year. He said he learned in his first class that his visually impaired students had never been shown where the RSF was.
Jessica Adams, the assistant for the class and a former Cal volleyball player, compared the difficulty disabled students have entering athletics today with the problems women had at U.S. universities before Title IX, the act that prohibited sex discrimination in extracurricular and federally funded activities.
The goalball class joins a number of efforts UC Berkeley has made for the inclusion of disabled students in athletics, such as a disabled golf class and “power soccer,” which is soccer played with power wheelchairs.
Chancellor Nicholas Dirks attended Friday’s practice to hand out official Cal jerseys to the team, struggling slightly to fit one over the team mascot, Van Dyke, team co-captain Judith Lung’s guide dog.
“You are really setting a new moment in history for what can be done for people who have the will and the courage to step forward and engage in an activity like this,” Dirks said to the team members.
Looking forward, Rick Smith — the executive director of the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, which partners with the class — said he hopes that goalball and other similar sports will one day resemble standard college varsity sports.
Van Rheenen said he hopes the class will serve as a model for other universities.
“We have an elite model of sports in this country,” Van Rheenen said, “when we should be promoting a culture of wellness.”