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Matt Simpson '12: The Road to Rio

When Matt Simpson ’12 rang in the new year of 2016, he knew it was going to be one that would change his life.

“It’s a big year; it’s really here,” he said. Simpson has been working toward this year since he was 10 years old and joined his first goalball team. In September, he will represent the U.S.A. in the sport at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Goalball is a sport developed for blind and visually impaired athletes like Simpson, who has a congenital disease of the retina that leaves him unable to see anything but shadows. The three-person teams compete on a court, trying to roll a ball past each other into a net. The balls contain bells that allow the players to hear where they are and try to prevent them entering the net. Because players have varying levels of sight, all players wear blindfolds. With balls coming at players at 50 miles per hour, the sport requires a high level of physicality and agility.

The U.S. team narrowly missed qualifying for the 2012 Paralympics in London, and for the past four years, players worked hard to qualify for 2016. That determination has taken a step further, with Simpson and several of his teammates moving to Ft. Wayne, Ind., in January to train full time.

Being able to train together full time “is huge for us,” said Simpson, noting that top teams from China, Brazil and other countries live and train together to attain a competitive advantage.

In order to train full time, Simpson left a job with the U.S. Association for Blind Athletes in Colorado Springs, Colo., which he had held since graduating from Washington and Lee. He now has part-time status with the organization, which provides athletic opportunities in various sports including track and field, Nordic and alpine skiing, biathlon, judo, wrestling, swimming, tandem cycling, powerlifting and goalball.

As membership and outreach coordinator for USABA, Simpson promoted and advanced the cause of sports for people with visual impairments. He worked on grant writing, helped with programs for disabled veterans and children, and worked with partner organizations around the country to build programs on the local level.

“I want people to know they are not bound to a life on the couch or a life of obesity,” Simpson said. Visually impaired people “can be fit and active.”

Goalball has also provided Simpson with opportunities for world travel. The U.S.A. team takes several trips each year, often to Europe. He has competed in Toronto, Lithuania and Poland, and the team will go to Rio in May, where officials will hold “test” matches prior to the official games in September.

U.S. Paralympics is a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee. USOC provides the majority of funds for the team’s travel, entry fees, room and board, as well as a stipend to each athlete. The Paralympic games take place every four years, usually just after the Olympics and in the same host city.

A native of Atlanta, Simpson plays for the Georgia Renegades when not occupied with the national team. Not new to winning goalball titles, Simpson’s Under-19 team won an international title in 2009, and he was a member of the team that won the National Goalball championships in 2011 and 2014, advancing through a field of about 25 teams.

Simpson credits his time at W&L for developing his athleticism. He came to the university as one of the first Johnson Scholars, after spending a weekend on campus and found it a good fit for him.

A political science major, he spent a lot of time in the weight room under the guidance of Chris Schall, associate professor of physical education and director of the Fitness Center. “I told him of my desire to be a Paralympic athlete, but I knew I was not ready,” said Simpson. “He helped me develop the skills, going beyond the call of duty” for a student who wasn’t on a W&L varsity team. “He put as much into my development in the weight room” as he did for varsity athletes, and took Simpson from an “aspiring young person with a dream to one of the strongest people” on his goalball team.

Neil Cunningham, director of physical education and assistant athletic director, “also took an interest in me and helped me with drills” in the weight room, said Simpson.

Academically, Bob Strong, Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics, was Simpson’s advisor, who helped me “all the way.” W&L President Ken Ruscio also encouraged him, along with the entire politics department. “I was well supported by community and staff.”

Simpson also was a member of the Student Judicial Council for four years, serving as chairman his senior year. He was an R.A. and served on the Student Advisory Council his senior year.

Now as he prepares for the biggest year of his life, Simpson is elated. “I get to train every day to be the best in the world in something — not for external gain, wealth or notoriety,” he said. Speaking for himself and his teammates, he said, “We find it fun, and we want to be the best in the world as representatives of the U.S.A.”

Ultimately, his goal is to educate the public about the abilities of blind people. He has done a lot of outreach with schools, talking about the ways that visually impaired people can excel. “We are athletes. I train just as hard as other Olympic athletes,” he said. “I want to be the best athlete I can be who happens to be blind.”

– by Linda Evans

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