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Get Sporty: The Canadian Blind Sports Association

Editor's Note: Matt Morrow is Director of Participation with the Canadian Blind Sports Association.

Picture: Team Canada at Practice

Five Paralympians are playing. They sprawl back and forth across the court and block shots reaching speeds upwards of 60 kilometres per hour. As if this wasn't enough, all of the athletes wear opaque visors and cannot see a thing. Yet no one in the crowd makes a sound.

Quebec's Mario Caron, the all-time leading Paralympic goal scorer, launches the ball down the court. At the other end, representing Ontario, National Team-mate Dean Kozak throws himself towards the post, gets a piece of the ball, and successfully defends the net.

A spectacular shot, an even better save--overall, a fantastic play. Some of the best athletes in the world are putting on an incredible show, yet not a soul claps or cheers; no one offers any words of encouragement; and there are no sounds of excitement. The crowd remains silent.

Why? Because these athletes are playing Goalball, a Paralympic sport exclusively for persons who are blind or partially sighted. Competitors rely on only their hearing to track the ball by listening to the four bells jingling inside as it hurdles towards them. Talking, cheering, and noise of any kind are strictly forbidden during play to allow the athletes the best chance of locating the ball. Until a goal is scored, that is. Then the raucous crowd of about 75 erupts in chants, war-whoops and feverish clapping.

The game? Team Ontario vs. Team Quebec in the semi-finals at the 2008 Canadian Blind Sports National Goalball Championships, which took place between March 15 and 17 in Kelowna, British Columbia. 53 of the nation's top Goalball players faced off in both men's and women's competitions for the right to be called the best in Canada.

The event featured players of all ages and skill levels, from National Team athletes vying to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, to novice players attending their first National Championships and enjoying the purity of the fun-filled game. All told, the competitors and coaches combined to create 12 teams representing seven provinces, from British Columbia to Prince Edward Island, and played in an awe-inspiring 49 games over the course of three days.

Why are sports events like this so important for people who are blind or partially sighted? For the same reasons they are valuable for everyone--for their physical, social and psychological benefits. On top of that, the sport of Goalball is unique in that it is played at the international level exclusively by athletes who are blind, which ensures an even playing field, and that it provides a social network of Goalball and sport enthusiasts who are blind.

Quebec's Nathalie Chartrand is the perfect example of a dedicated Goalball athlete, who credits the sport for opening up a whole new world of possibilities for her.

Because of a medical condition, Nathalie became totally blind at age 20 in a little less than a month. She remembers thinking at the time that her life was over. As it turned out, losing her sight was just the beginning of a long love affair with the sport of Goalball, which has taken her to two Paralympic Games and two World Championships, has given her the opportunity to learn English and Spanish, and which has led her to two careers--first as a sport massage therapist and now as the Director General of the Quebec Blind Sports Association (Association Sportive des Aveugles du Quebec, ASAQ).

Nathalie loves the thrill of competition and the physical benefits of participating in Goalball, but is also very quick to mention the social aspects. "When I lost my sight, I had never known anyone else who was blind," she remembers. "The very next year I started Goalball. The other players taught me how to play, but also they taught me tricks {of the trade} and about how to be blind."

"When I lost my sight, I also lost my self-confidence, because I didn't know how to even move around without killing myself. Being good at Goalball helped me to rebuild my self-esteem."

As Goalball helped Nathalie adapt to her new life as a person who is blind, she simultaneously grew more comfortable as an athlete who is blind. The game also provided her with an outlet for her competitive fire. "What I love about Goalball is that when I am on the court, there is no guide, no pilot. On the court, I just play."

With this passion, Nathalie trained hard and used Goalball to fulfill her dreams. As a sighted nine-year-old, she had watched the 1976 Montreal Olympics and witnessed Nadia Comaneci's incredible display of athleticism as she won three gold medals and posted the first-ever perfect scores in Gymnastics. "When I saw that, I thought that one day I will win Olympic medals too," she reminisces. "I didn't know it would be the Paralympics, though, and that I would be blind!"

Nathalie was an integral part of the Canadian Women's Goalball Team's Bronze Medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games and their 2000 Gold Medal win in Sydney. While the glory of winning drives any high-performance athlete, Nathalie also stresses the importance of physical activity to a healthy life, saying, "It is not only the gold medal that is important, but all that you have to do to get there."

Now retired from international competition, Nathalie represented team Quebec when she participated in her 20th Canadian Blind Sports National Goalball Championships this past March. Though she claims that this is her last Nationals, Nathalie embraces the annual event, pointing out that "the rest of the year I live in the sighted world. With Goalball and Nationals, at least once a year I can compete with people who have the same level of vision as myself." As all participants wear visors, Goalball truly presents an even playing field.

As dedicated athletes, like Nathalie, show that Goalball is alive and well and growing in numbers, the Canadian Blind Sports Association and its nine provincial member organizations strive to make this country the best place for Goalball and blind sports in general. They offer a wide variety of programs, ranging from Paralympic sports like athletics, judo, swimming and tandem cycling, to recreational activities such as dragon boating, golf, hockey, lawn bowles, power lifting, showdown, triathlon and wrestling.

Please visit www.canadianblindsports.ca to find your Provincial Blind Sports Organization or to find out how to contact us directly. Get up and out and involved. There are plenty of opportunities to play, coach, volunteer or become a sponsor, with teams and events right across the country. You can also find out when competitions are happening near you. Come out and support the dedicated Goalball athletes. Their heart, passion and athleticism will impress you.

Just make sure to turn off all cell phones and pagers first!

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