Imagine being blindfolded and hurling—or blocking—a 2.8-pound ball into a soccer-like net. That’s exactly what goalball star Amanda Dennis, 25, has been doing for most of her life.
Born with aniridia, a rare genetic vision disorder that makes her legally blind, Dennis took up the sport of goalball at the age of 7 after attending an adaptive sports education camp in Atlanta. “At the time, I was very averse to playing sports,” says Dennis, who is originally from Peachtree City, Georgia. “I did not want to do it.”
But Dennis’ parents encouraged her to attend an adaptive sports education camp hosted by Blaze Sports America. That’s where she met Paralympic athletes and learned about goalball, a sport created after World War II to help rehabilitate injured soldiers where everyone is blindfolded.
At 15, she qualified for an elite camp that put her on the international playing field—where she competed in her first global event: the Malmö Lady and Men Intercup in Sweden. At 18, she made her Paralympic goalball debut at the 2012 London games with a sixth-place finish. Dennis went to win back-to-back bronze medals at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil and at the 2017 IBSA Americas Championships
Now, she is one of the more than 300 international athletes who’ve been competing at the International Blind Sports Federation’s (ISBA) 2019 Goalball and Judo International Qualifying Competition in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at the Turnstone Center’s Goalball Center of Excellence. Turnstone is one of 14 Olympic and Paralympic Training Centers in the U.S. but the only Paralympic Training Center with a specialty in Goalball. It’s the first time an international qualifier for sport of goalball has been held in the United States and the largest international sporting event ever hosted in the city’s history.
Here’s what you should know about Dennis and the sport of goalball.
What’s it like to have aniridia and be legally blind?
It’s a visual impairment that’s pretty rare. Basically, you’re born without your irises. Any light that enters into your eyes is filtered out. Everything looks like whited out, especially if you’re outside, or you’re in situations where it’s really light out, you just really can’t see anything at all.
If someone is right in front of me, I can see general things, like about what height they are, if they have brown hair and whatever the skin tone is, but I won’t be able to see someone waving at me who is 10 feet away.
How do you play goalball?
It’s a three-on-three sport that’s played on a volleyball-sized court, nine by 18 meters. There are raised, tactile lines on the court so players can feel where they are at. Each player is blindfolded and in international competition, there’s adhesive patches that go under your blindfold.
The ball has no air pressure so it doesn’t bounce very easily and it has [a couple] of bells in it. So everyone can hear the ball off the bells so you can track it. You can throw it underhanded or bounce it, but the ball can go 40 to 60 miles per hour on the elite level. It’s like being a kickball pitcher. You’re trying to get the ball past your opponents who are diving on the ground in front of the net that is about five feet tall.
What does it feel like to play goalball?
Goalball is a combat power sport. So you’re looking at quick movements, short bursts of energy. It’s like football where you’re running and then you stop.