Amy Kneebone was 11 years old when her teacher introduced her to goalball, a game for visually impaired athletes.
Veronica Tang, Centretown News
Amy Kneebone dives for a save in a goalball scrimmage.
A decade and two Paralympic Games later, the Canadian national women’s team captain is at the forefront of a wave of talent that has transformed Ottawa into the unofficial epicentre of goalball in the country.
“Ottawa is the huge hotbed,” says Shane Enau, high performance director for Canadian Blind Sports, the national organization for goalball. “And it’s not like we said that we were going to start up a training centre in Ottawa, it just seemed to happen that way.”
Goalball is a sport exclusive to blind and visually impaired athletes. Played between two teams of three players, the objective of the game is to roll a ball containing a noise bell – known as the goalball – in a bowling ball motion into the opponent’s net while the opposing team tries to block it by sprawling on the ground.
The game is played on a standard gymnasium volleyball court in total silence – crowd included – so that players can hear the goalball. In tournament play, players are also required to wear patches and blacked-out goggles over their eyes to prevent any player with partial site from having an unfair advantage.
According to Enau, goalball has more participants than any other Paralympic sport. In the London Games, 72 players suited up for 15 countries in the men’s and women’s tournaments.
He says there are 90 competitive-level players in Canada alone – more than the number of athletes in all other Paralympic sports combined.
Canada has emerged as one of the most decorated countries since the sport became a full part of the Paralympic Games in 1980.
The women’s team has been especially successful throughout the history of the sport.
Despite missing the podium in both of the last two Paralympic Games, the team is tied with the United States for first in all-time medal count for the sport.
Until recently, most of that success came from a group of elite players based in the Brantford area, where the W. Ross Macdonald School for the blind, visually impaired and deafblind served as the main goalball training centre in the country.
Janice Dawson, the women’s national team coach, says that began to change when the school started to shift its mandate in order to include youths with disabilities other than visual impairment about five years ago.
With two members of the men’s national team based in Ottawa, when the level of goalball in Brantford began to decline, the capital became an obvious landing ground for those who wanted to continue to improve their game.
Kneebone, who is originally from Charlottetown, P.E.I., was one of the first of the elite players to make the move.
“It was a great opportunity for me to get to train with [the members of the men’s team] and have them teach me everything they know,” Kneebone says.
She isn’t surprised that others have followed.
“People have been moving from Brantford once they graduate from the blind school because they know the best place to practice goalball is here in Ottawa,” she says.
The pilgrimage of goalball players has been impressive. According to Dawson, four of the six members of the women’s national team now live in Ottawa.
Enau says the mass relocation of elite players has also had an effect on people in the lower levels of the sport.
He says in the last year, people have moved to the city from as far away as Calgary for training purposes.
“If you’re training to throw a ball, you want to throw against someone who can block the ball really well, and you want to have someone who can throw a ball when you’re working on your defensive skills,” he says.
Although it started as a grassroots movement among the country’s elite players, the governing bodies of the sport have embraced the move to the capital.
Prior to last year’s Paralympic Games in London, the women’s national team was centralized for three months of training for the first time in its history. According to Dawson, Ottawa was the natural choice to be the host city.
“That was a big step for our program,” she says.
Dawson says she hopes to do the same before the next Paralympic Games in Brazil and she doesn’t see a reason why the venue – or the local Ottawa talent – will be any different.