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W&L Sophomore Member of U.S. Champion Goalball Team

Imagine a three-pound ball coming at you at 50 miles an hour from 40 feet away. Now, imagine that you are blindfolded and have half a second to deflect the ball.

That’s the challenge Washington and Lee University sophomore Matt Simpson faced when he played on the United States team in the under-19 World Championships in goalball in Colorado Springs this summer.

“It is definitely an intimidating sport if I think about it,” said Simpson, whose U.S. team won the championship by beating Canada in the finals.

Goalball is a sport for the visually impaired. It was invented in Austria after WWII to help rehabilitate blinded war veterans and is played internationally around the world, with 30 to 40 countries fielding teams. In the United States it is played competitively at the club, youth, state and national levels, with about 25 states having teams. There are European and world championships, and goalball is the only team sport for the visually impaired in the Paralympics.

The Paralympics are under the umbrella of the International Olympic Committee. They occur every four years a few weeks after the Olympics, with thousands of participants with physical and visual impairments representing a hundred or more countries.
Simpson said the game is a bit like soccer or handball. It is played in a gym with a wooden floor on a court that is 18 meters by 9 meters. The court is marked with lines of tape with string underneath so the players can feel them. There are two teams of three people-a center, a left wing and a right wing. The wings do most of the throwing of the ball which is underhand like in bowling. The center covers the center of the court and focuses mainly on defense.

The players must wear hip, elbow and knee pads to protect them from the floor because a lot of diving is involved. All competitors are blindfolded so no one has an advantage and partially blind athletes can play.

Matt Simpson in action in Colorado Springs

The hollow ball, which is about the size of a basketball, is made of rubber and plastic with bells inside it.

Each team stays at its end of the court and the players use the sound of the ball to judge its position and movement and try to throw it into the opponents’ goal using different plays and strategies.

Simpson plays center because of his size-he’s small and quick. He said that rather than try and catch the ball, because it’s going so fast, the players block it.

“I have a little bit of vision left, and I have played without a blindfold and it is very scary,” he said. “But when I put the blindfold on I forget about it. I don’t have time to think about the speed when I’ve got half a second to react.”

Correct form is essential. “If you’re doing something incorrectly you’re going to break a finger or a nose,” said Simpson. “I’ve jammed my fingers a lot, and broken a couple of fingers at different times, but never anything too bad.”

Another essential is quick reactions and a good sense of hearing. “As the center, I’ve got 14 feet to cover and I really need to have a great reaction time because the ball’s coming at me very fast. I’ve got to extend my entire body and get to the right place, so I really need a good sense of hearing.”

Simpson, who is the recipient of a prestigious Johnson Scholarship at W&L, has been playing goalball for eight years and has an impressive track record in the sport. He was an all-American twice in high school goalball, and his youth team took second at nationals. He has been playing adult goalball for the last four years, with his adult team taking third at nationals in 2008.

After his team’s victory in the under-19 World Championships, Simpson’s goal is to make the adult national team and play at the 2012 Paralympics in London.

To help him in that goal, he has been working closely with Christopher Schall, W&L’s associate professor of physical education, director of W&L’s fitness center. He helped Simpson develop a lifting program and worked with him on speed and agility. Simpson can be found training several times a week in W&L’s auxiliary gym, where he has taped down a segment of the court to practice throwing and defensive drills.

Below, a video sample of goalball from Australia: