October 1st, 2016

Stoking the competitive fire


By Lethbridge Herald on April 7, 2015.

Good Sport: By Dylan Purcell
Aron Ghebreyohannes was left out of sports growing up. Left to wait in the library because he is blind.
The Lethbridge College student and member of Canada’s senior men’s goalball team was there to illustrate his sport, designed specifically for blind athletes. It involves two teams flinging a three-pound rubber ball at goals from either side of a court roughly the size of a volleyball court. The catch, of course, is that the three-athlete teams can dive in front of the ball to make a save. Like dodgeball, but with a bigger, harder, faster-moving ball. And instead of dodging, the whole idea is to get hit.
While blind.
“Imagine a 1.3-kilogram ball coming at you at up to 65 kilometres an hour,” Ghebreyohannes said. “You have to protect a nine-metre wide net and can block the ball with any part of your body. And one more thing — you can’t see anything.
“Welcome to goalball.”
That’s how Ghebreyohannes describes his sport — and he admitted the more brutal aspects of it — laying out your body, anticipating taking a blow to your gut or worse — is part of the attraction. Ghebreyohannes was a member of Team Canada at the 2011 ParaPan Games in Guadaljara and is hoping to be on the national side at the Paralympic Games in 2016 in Rio.
He was speaking to Professor Mary Dyck’s adaptive sports class. Once the game began, it became clear the sighted students were at a severe handicap.
Ghebreyohannes is at his sport’s highest level right now, but he said it wasn’t that way growing up.
A brain tumour at five years old took away the sight in his right eye and left with 10 per cent vision in his left.
“I was always left out of gym class,” said Ghebreyohannes. “I would get left out, or left in the library.”
Ghebreyohannes was 15 when he found goalball, thanks to some dedicated teachers and people in his life. Before that, however, he knew he wanted to compete, and he said adapted sports like blind hockey or basketball didn’t do it for him.
“I’ve always been competitive, so growing up I couldn’t compete in any sports on a team or anything like that, so I never really had a chance to show my competitive side until I got involved in goalball,” he said. “But even before goalball, I knew that sports would help not just my physical well-being, but help me grow as a person.”
He’s a lithe six-foot-two and would have to gain weight to reach his listed 200 pounds, but Ghebreyohannes said when he discovered goalball, he was overweight.
He knew he didn’t want to be a recreational athlete and so he went to work.
“When I first got involved I was really out of shape, I was probably about 40 or 50 pounds overweight so once I got introduced I said ‘This is something I might have a chance at competing in.
“So I was up to the test, to better myself and get to that level I wanted to.”
It culminated in being named to Canada’s senior goalball team. After a series of injuries delayed the 25-year-old’s progress, he still won a national title and was a silver medallist at the World Student and Youth Games and he represented Canada in Mexico in 2011.
“It was eight years in the building. When I finally found out I made it, it was more relief, it was like ‘Finally, I’m here,’” he said.
“But I knew I had to work harder to stay here.”
Ghebreyohannes trains in Calgary on weekends with some of his teammates, and also works with youth who might be in the same situation now that he was in years ago. He said it feels good to give back, to introduce others to the sport which has enabled him to feed his competitive spirit.
As Ghebreyohannes showed the U of L students over to a mock-up of a goalball court, one asked him “Is there trash talk?”
“Of course,” he said. “It’s like every other sport, we trash talk.”
It is a little harder on opposite ends of the court, but Ghebreyohannes said goalball athletes have pretty good hearing. He even admitted that while demonstrating his sport to the university students, he felt the temptation to show them what a national-level shot to the gut feels like.
“There are guys who throw it up to 65 kms an hour, that hurts pretty good,” he said. “I get flashes of it when I’m showing them the games but I hold back.”
That gruelling aspect of the sport is a big part of its appeal. The pain of a training session and the bumps and bruises from diving across the goal are all part of the fun.
“At the beginning of the season, we had a Saturday and Sunday practice and on Sunday morning we couldn’t move,” he said.  “It reminds you that you’re part of a competitive sport. Look at hockey, football — they’re brutal and it reminds you what level you’re all trying to get to.”
Dyck’s students donned their goggles — the university’s goggles weren’t quite as sleek as Ghebreyohannes’s competitive model. He wore simple volleyball kneepads and specially designed goalball pants. While blinded by the goggles, the U of L students were stuck flailing and occasionally peeking out to see where they were — and where the ball was headed. Ghebreyohannes glided across the floor, feeling for his position marker while listening for the jingle of the ball as it shot down the floor, rarely on target.
For the class, the results were comical. Ghebreyohannes didn’t have much to do as the ball rarely found its mark and the blinded students just laid down and hoped.
The demonstration was about more than the adaptations of a sport, however. The class also got a chance to see a Team Canada athlete who spent too much of his life stuck in the library while other students competed.
“When I found out about goalball, I just knew this was the sport I wanted to play,” he said. “I knew I’d found a way to be competitive and to compete with people who were also competitive.
“All the training, all the work is worth it because it’s what I was always looking for.”

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