Eliana Mason is a longtime sports lover. But playing them as a kid wasn’t always easy—or fun. Take her stint with soccer, for instance.
“By the time I’d see where the ball was, it was kicked to the other side of the field,” Mason, now 23, tells SELF. “I remember just being so frustrated.”
The Beaverton, Oregon native was born with congenital glaucoma and cataracts and had multiple eye surgeries as an infant. Today, she has no vision at all in her left eye, and in her right eye, can only see directly in front of her (no peripheral vision). Hence the intense frustration with soccer.
While Mason was at a summer sports camp with Washington School for the Blind at age 14, she discovered a sport where being blind was not a hinderance, but an intentional component of the game: goalball. She “absolutely fell in love with it,” she says, and went on to be a Paralympic medalist in goalball (!!) just six years later.
If you’re thinking—Hold up, what is goalball?—you’re not alone. The sport is part of the Paralympics, as mentioned, and “the most popular team sport for the blind and visually impaired” (per United States Association for Blind Athletes website), but it’s still relatively unknown by the general public.
Mason hopes to help change that. This week, she and goalball athletes from around the world will gather in Fort Wayne, Indiana for the International Blind Sports Federation’s 2019 Goalball Paralympic Qualifying Competition, taking place July 2 to July 9. The tournament represents the first-ever time that the competition has been held in the U.S., says Mason, and she and the rest of the U.S. women’s squad have been training hard—really hard—for their shot at earning a ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
In the lead up to the high-stakes competition, we chatted with Mason and the head coach of U.S. Women’s Goalball to learn more about this little-known sport, how Mason became one of the top competitors in the world, what it takes to train and compete at an elite level, and more.
Goalball was created in 1946 as a rehabilitative activity for veterans who lost their vision in World War II, and made its Paralympic debut at the 1976 Games, the official Paralympics website explains. The sport is played only by athletes who are visually impaired, and during competition, all athletes wear blackout masks so that everyone is completely blind, per the site.
According to Mason, the sport is a little hard to explain if you’ve never experienced it, but this video published on the Paralympics Games YouTube page might help. As described in the video, the sport is played on a 9-by-18-meter court with a goal on each end measuring 9 meters wide and 1.3 meters high (just to be clear, that’s a really large goal). The court is tactile, meaning there are strings placed along the boundaries so that athletes can orient themselves.
Two teams of three players each take to the court with a singular goal: to roll the ball into the opponents’ goal as many times as possible during the 24-minute match, which is broken into two 12-minute halves. The ball, which weighs about 3 pounds, says Mason, contains two bells inside that help players identify where, exactly, it is on the court. During competition, the crowd is asked to be completely quiet so that athletes can hear the ball. Because the goals are so large, athletes often have to dive onto the ground to block it from entering their team’s goal. Combine that with the fact that elite players can throw the ball upwards of 40 miles per hour, and the game is nothing short of intense with a capital I.
“Goalball is a wonderfully unique sport,” Jake Czechowski, head coach of U.S. Women’s Goalball, tells SELF. Czechowski also leads the U.S. Women’s Goalball Resident Program in Fort Wayne, and his wife, Lisa Czechowski, is a member of the U.S. Women’s Goalball Team and five-time Paralympian, per TeamUSA.org. “It’s not a derivative of any one sport,” he adds, but rather a hybrid of multiple sports.
There’s the underhand throw that athletes use to launch the ball into the net, which is similar to a pitch in softball or bowling, says Czechowski. Then, there are the defensive team components, which are similar to football or even volleyball, he adds. And then there are the individual skills—like reaction time, strength, power, speed, flexibility, spatial awareness, mental fortitude, and more.
In goalball, reaction time is especially key. At the elite level, athletes throw the ball anywhere from 30 to 40 miles an hour, which gives the opposing team less than one second to react, says Czechowski. Yet within that fraction of a second, athletes must also employ patience to ensure they don’t react too soon and dive for a ball that’s not yet there. “Wait till you read the ball and have your body react to the ball,” says Mason. “Don’t let the ball play you, but you play the ball.”
Because goalball is played without sight, it’s helpful to both know your opponent (e.g. understand what type of offense they like to implement), and be able to “read the ball,” says Czechowski. “You can hear a smooth ball, versus a bigger bouncing ball, versus a skipping ball,” he explains. “They’re going to make three very, very different distinctive sounds.” Distinguishing between these sounds can help defensive players assess where and how the ball is traveling so they can best block it. Solid spatial awareness and the ability to create a mental map of the court—understanding where you are in relation to your teammates—are also important.
On top of that, elite goalball players need strength, speed, and power (explosive movement) when both throwing and blocking the ball. These skills are the most essential to success, says Czechowski. Yet the ability to work well with a team and serious mental fortitude are also key. “When you’re throwing yourself down on a basketball floor 100 times in a 24-minute match; when you’re throwing yourself in front of a 3-pound ball and you’re choosing to do this, you have to have a certain mentality where there is no limit to your toughness,” says Czechowski.
In addition to mental toughness, mental engagement is another crucial component. Because games are typically low-scoring (for example, when the U.S. won the Paralympic bronze medal in 2016, they beat Brazil 3 to 2), “one mistake could make or break the game,” she says. That’s why players “have to stay mentally focused.”
How Mason became an elite goalball player
Soon after learning about goalball as a young teenager, Mason met, by chance, two Paralympic goalball players—Jen Armbruster and Asya Miller—and started training with them in Oregon, she says. “I really started off just [thinking] it was a fun thing to do,” she explains. “And as I continued to go to practice and evolve with the sport, I realized how much I really loved playing it.”
With goalball, Mason says she “was able to try to excel and be my best self without having to accommodate for the lack of vision.” Compared to all other aspects of her life, where she’s had to overcome her limited vision, “it’s empowering to be able to be a part of doing something where there are no limitations.”
Before long, Mason started competing in goalball tournaments, and then, as a senior in high school, was invited to attend a USA Training Camp and a USA international tournament. “From that point, I just became obsessed with getting through training and really trying to make the 2016 Rio USA Team,” says Mason. And she did just that—not only making the 2016 Rio squad, but leaving Brazil with a bronze medal around her neck.
Now, three years later, Mason has Paralympic goals in mind once again.
What Paralympic training looks like
In anticipation of the upcoming Paralympic qualifying tournament, the U.S. women’s goalball team has been practicing in Fort Wayne at the Turnstone Center (a local not-for-profit facility) as part of a newly established resident training program. Several months ago, Mason relocated to Fort Wayne for the program and is committed to stay out there up until the 2020 Paralympic Games next summer, she says. [Her boyfriend, Calahan Young, is also in Fort Wayne as a member of the Men’s U.S. Goalball Team, she says].
Thanks to the resident training program, currently comprised of six athletes, the team has been able to implement new concepts and new strategies faster, says Czechowski. “It’s allowed the learning curve and the training curve to accelerate,” he says. Prior to the program (like with the 2016 Paralympic training cycle, for example), athletes would practice and train on their own wherever they lived and only play together as a team during training camps about once every three months, says Mason. “We’d spend half the training just getting re-acclimated to each other, whereas now we practice every single day,” she explains. “We know each other, we know each other’s tendencies. We have really learned to work as a team instead of three individuals on the court. It’s like we are one unit. And so by having the opportunity and the access to practice every day, it has completely changed our team and it’s changed our game and it’s going to help us on the road to gold in Tokyo.”
So what exactly does their training entail? Well, lots (and lots) of time both on the court and off the court honing the requisite skills. In total, about 22 to 23 hours a week, says Czechowski. That includes four days of on-court practice; three days of strength, plyometric, and conditioning work; and two days of yoga and flexibility work, he says.
To specifically train strength, athletes work with a specialist to complete a series of moves—like back squats, reverse deadlifts, bench presses, chest lifts, bicep curls, military presses, dumbbell flys, and more—as well as TRX suspension training, which helps target the core and provide the athletes who are visually impaired a “sense of space within the workout,” explains Czechowski. This allows the “body to relax a bit more and you can really concentrate on the individual motions of the exercise.”
Mason also mentions medicine ball throws, ball slams, balance drills atop a BOSU, sled pushes, plank walks, battle ropes, lunges, rowing—and oh, tire flipping. Plyometric work comes in the form of explosive throws and jumps, says Czechowski. There’s also dedicated time for footwork, speed work, and agility drills.
Because goalball is “a very physical sport,” says Czechowski, injuries do happen, including bumps, bruises, and sprains, as well as more serious traumas, like concussions, plus knee and shoulder injuries. “The ability to withstand very fast, very abrupt, and very awkward motion and movement without the advantage of a visual warning can definitely cause stress on the body,” he says. That’s where the yoga and flexibility training comes in, he explains. On top of the 20-plus hours a week devoted to training, there’s additional time set aside for recovery, including regular ice baths, meetings with an athletic trainer, and the use of self-massage tools. All in all, elite goalball training is very time-intensive, which is especially impressive considering athletes aren’t given financial support to play the sport, and all of the members of the women’s team either work, attend school, and/or volunteer outside of the training, he adds.
How the sport has impacted Mason’s life—and what she hopes to do in the future
Goalball hasn’t just brought Mason Paralympic glory. It’s provided her with confidence and helped her grow.
“Being exposed to a community where you are around people who have a shared experience being blind or visually impaired, you really learn to become more confident with yourself and grow,” explains Mason. “You see other people who are older than you as role models. Because when I first started I was in high school, so I saw people who’d gone to college, people who were married, people who had children. There [were] always role models for me—[showing me that] I can do all this stuff and my disability isn’t a limitation.”
Looking ahead, Mason wants to first and foremost help Team USA qualify for the 2020 Paralympics. Then, once they’ve (hopefully) accomplished that goal, she wants to help them bring home medals—preferably of the gold variety—from Tokyo.
“[Eliana] is a perfect example of everything that’s good about adaptive sports,” says Czechowski. “This is a woman who had great athleticism and her only inhibitor was her inability to utilize her vision. Once she found the sport of goalball, she was able to try it. She was able to use all of her other skills athletically, emotionally, mentally, and cognitively, to really see how good she can be.”
It’s not just about her own success, though. Mason, who is currently working toward a masters degree in counseling, is committed to paying it forward to the younger generation, hoping to serve as their role model. She’s spent multiple summers teaching children with disabilities how to play sports, including goalball. “I love working with kids, teaching them sports,” she says. “I wish I learned about [goalball] younger.”