Cal goalball sets a new national precedent for inclusion

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There are several sports that involve a ball flying at your face at more than 30 miles per hour, but only one also requires blindfolds. And while Cal football may have just taken down Washington and men’s water polo may have upset UCLA, this little-known sport is paving its own path of success at Berkeley.

Goalball is a year-round paralympic sport designed for the visually impaired. The blindfolds, however, allow for complete integration in the game, placing sighted and blind athletes on the same level. While most student-athletes probably can’t imagine playing their sport without the use of their eyes, it is this exact absence that defines the game. Here’s how it works:

Teams of three, including two wings and a center, position themselves on either side of a volleyball court that has lines taped down with rope to facilitate tactile navigation. The rubber ball utilized is about the same size as a basketball but is also filled with bells.

The object of the game is to roll the ball across the court and past the opposite side’s goal line. It may sound simple, but players have developed complex strategies for adding spin to the ball and throwing at angles to try to confuse their opponents, disguising the ball’s true trajectory.

Opponents crouch low to the floor, waiting and listening. When they hear the ball, they have less than a second to determine its destination and stretch their bodies across the ground in an attempted block.

For many students on campus, athletics and fitness are a given in their everyday lives. For these visually impaired students, however, goalball often provides their first opportunity ever to participate in a competitive sport.

Students who participate in goalball don’t just play the sport but actually enroll in a class sponsored by Derek Van Rheenen, the director of cultural studies of sport in education at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. In this course, the students learn the basics of the game in addition to analyzing sports theory and studying the world of paralympic sports.

First established with the start of the Fitness for All program on campus, Goalball at Berkeley is now recognized as the first competitive college sports team to include blind students, setting a national precedent for inclusion.

The goalball class is also provided in connection with CalSTAR (Sports, Training and Recreation) and Berkeley Rec Sports’ Inclusive Recreation program, established in 1986.

“The CalSTAR program is designed to integrate students, faculty, alumni, and community members who have individual needs or requirements so that they may participate in existing recreational programs,” campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff said in an email.

A membership with the program provides volunteer assistants for those with specific needs, adaptive equipment and specialized training facilities, all funded by a grant from the Wellness Fund Advisory Committee.

“(The grant) has effectively introduced students to Rec Sports who might not have considered us an option in the past,” Ratliff said in the email.

For community members who are interested in getting involved with Inclusive Recreation, the best way to start is with an Inclusive Rec 101 orientation. In a 45-minute session, a specialized trainer can provide an individual tour of the facilities, descriptions of the equipment and a summary of all of the programs available.

Goalball at Berkeley is only a few years old, and yet it is already changing the lives of many students on campus and setting a precedent for inclusive recreation both at UC Berkeley and on a national platform.

“Our overriding goal is to understand and accommodate the needs of our members so that we can take action to lower barriers to participation in recreational activities and programs,” Ratliff said in the email.

Alison White is an assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].