On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
What’s it like to play a game of hockey or run a marathon with low vision or blindness? Kojo sits down with local athletes — including a marathon runner with Achilles International’s D.C. Chapter, and a hockey player who skates with the Washington Blind Hockey Club and the USA Blind Hockey Team — to discuss how people who are blind or visually impaired can get involved with sports in the Washington region.
Plus, the history behind goalball, the most popular team sport for the blind and visually impaired.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
What Is Goalball?
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Have you ever heard of goalball? What about blind hockey? These are just two of the many sports that visually impaired athletes play, not just here in Washington, but competitively on the national and international stage. Joining me to talk about their athletic careers and how people who are blind can get involved in sports is Kurt Sloop. Kurt is a goalball athlete and a board member of the Metro Washington Association of Blind Athletes. Kurt Sloop, thank you for joining us.
KURT SLOOPIt's nice to see you.
NNAMDICharlie Mitchell is a hockey player with the Washington Blind Hockey Club and a member of USA Blind Hockey team. Charlie Mitchell, thank you for joining us.
CHARLIE MITCHELLThank you. Great to be on the show today.
NNAMDIAnd Irwin Ramirez is the president of Achilles International's D.C. chapter and a marathon runner. Irwin, thank you for joining us.
IRWIN RAMIREZThank you so much for the opportunity to be here today.
NNAMDIKurt Sloop, I'll start with you. You play a sport called goalball, which was specifically designed for people with low vision. First, can you tell us, in a sentence or two, what goalball is?
SLOOPYeah. So, as you said, goalball's a sport developed specifically for blind athletes. So, not an adaptive sport. And, essentially, you're on a court, and it's about the size of a volleyball court. And you have three players on each side. The goal of the sport is to score on the other team. So, you're throwing a three-pound ball as hard as you can, bouncing or rolling it towards the other end and trying to get it past them. So, defensively, they're serving as three goalies, essentially, to stop that ball.
NNAMDIWe've included a video that explains the rules of goalball. You can find it on our website, kojoshow.org. But, Kurt, how do you know where the ball is heading and where to position your body to block that three-pound ball? (laugh)
SLOOP(laugh) So, that is the difficult part, orienting yourself on the court. But, essentially, the lines of the court are taped down with a cord underneath them, so it's a tactile court. You have complete blackout shades on, so you can't see anything. And, depending on your position, you're either on a right wing, left wing, or you're center. You have hash marks that let you know where you need to be. You have the goal that's behind you that spans the width of the entire baseline, essentially.
SLOOPSo, you're physically lining yourself up. And then when that ball is thrown at you, you have to listen for it. And it's a split second, because, you know, that ball's being thrown very quickly across the court.
NNAMDIYeah, I watched some of the video. It was amazing. When was goalball first created, and when did it become popular in the U.S. and here in D.C.?
SLOOPSure. So, goalball was developed after World War II in Austria for veterans that were coming home with visual impairments, as a rehabilitation activity. And then I believe it became a Paralympics sport in the '70s, I think around '76. And so -- yeah.
NNAMDIAnd it's been popular since then. How did you get your start as a goalball athlete?
SLOOPSo, I have to credit my wife with that. I had a condition called RP. It's a progressive condition, and I was losing my sight, and kind of became very inactive. And she found out about the organization, Metropolitan Washington Association of Blind Athletes, and said, hey, there's this goalball clinic that's happening.
SLOOPYou're going. (laugh) And I reluctantly went, and it was the best thing I've ever done.
NNAMDIWow. Charlie Mitchell, you played sighted hockey competitively through high school and recreationally in college. Then, after college, your vision started to deteriorate. Tell us what happened and how you found your way back to hockey.
MITCHELLYeah, that's right. So, I had played hockey since before I can remember. It was a big part of my childhood all the way up through high school. After college, my first year of law school, I started to really notice my vision was deteriorating. It started to really impact my life. I couldn't drive a car anymore. And gradually over time, you know, I stopped being able to do a lot of the things that I enjoyed doing, like biking. And I assumed I'd never play hockey again.
MITCHELLSo, it was almost 10 years that I went without playing, until just pure coincidence, a coworker was in the break room with me at my law firm and said, I was out with my kids this weekend and we checked out this really cool blind hockey thing that they're doing over in Arlington.
NNAMDIAnd you're going, like, whoo. (laugh)
MITCHELLYeah, well, I mean, so, she obviously knew that I'm visually impaired, but she had no idea that I had previously played hockey or anything like that. So, it was really quite a remarkable coincidence. And I said, that sounds really cool. But I also thought it was a little bit crazy, to be honest. I think when most people hear blind hockey they're kind of curious, what is that? How does that work? And long story short, I went and I checked it out and I skated with the team once, and I've been hooked on it ever since.
NNAMDIYeah, but there's a long way between checking it out and ending up on the U.S. national team. How did you make your way onto the U.S. national team?
MITCHELLSo, like I said, I went out one weekend and skated with the team. They practice here in D.C. every Sunday. And I loved it. It was just an incredible feeling to get back on the ice, play the game that I love again. And I, you know, poured myself into it. I started going to tournaments around the country.
MITCHELLI ultimately went to the U.S.A. Disabled Hockey Festival last spring, which was down in Tampa, Florida. And, in conjunction with that event, which is kind of an umbrella event that covers all disciplines of para-hockey, not just blind hockey, they had a preliminary tryout for Team U.S.A., as most of the serious players from the country attend that event. So, I attended the preliminary tryout. I was invited to attend the team's training camp, which is every summer up in Utica, New York. And they selected the final team for 2019, 2020 at that training camp this summer.
NNAMDICharlie, how is playing blind hockey different than playing sighted hockey, both in terms of the rules and in terms of your own experience on the ice?
MITCHELLSo, the rules are not too different from sighted hockey. The biggest adaptations are the puck, which is about two times bigger than a normal hockey puck. And it's also made out of metal, and it's hollow and filled with ball bearings. So, it's quite loud, so that it can be tracked audibly, rather than visually. The nets are smaller than in sighted hockey to give the goalies a better opportunity to stop the puck, as the goalies in blind hockey are essentially completely blind. And, for good measure, they're also blindfolded, as well.
MITCHELLBeyond that, the other major adaptation is that there's a point system. So, blind hockey's a little bit of a misnomer in that it's really blind and visually impaired hockey. So players who are all at least legally blind are categorized as a B1, a B2 or a B3. B1 being the least vision and B3 being the most vision. And, of your five skaters, you can only have a maximum of 13 points on the ice at any one time. So, you need to kind of strategize and put a mix of players out there with different levels of vision.
NNAMDII know that in goalball, the fans have to be quiet when they're watching the game, because the athletes track the sound of the ball. Is that the same in blind hockey?
MITCHELLI do think the crowd tries to be quieter, probably...
NNAMDIYeah, but it's hockey, right? (laugh)
MITCHELLYeah, to be honest, once you're inside the glass out there on the rink, the puck kind of drowns out everything. So, it's very, very loud. And, also, the other major difference from sighted hockey is that communication is just absolutely essential. So, we have a bunch of code words that we use for different scenarios. You know, if our forwards are in the offensive zone and they turn over the puck, as a defenseman, I can't see that they've just turned over the puck. I don't know that the other team is now going to be coming towards me, and I need to transition a defense. So, they need to be yelling code words to tell me, okay, we've turned over the puck. The other team has it. You need to start transitioning back to defense.
MITCHELLOur goalies are constantly yelling, because they're kind of fixed reference points on the ice. So, that, you know, as a defenseman, I know am I left of the goalies, am I right of the goalie, am I center. And, likewise, communicating where the puck is, there's just a lot of communication involved.
NNAMDIIrwin Ramirez, Achilles International is a nonprofit organization that empowers athletes with all types of disabilities to participate in running events. What led you to first join Achilles International?
RAMIREZSo, I joined Achilles in 2009, and it was mainly due to my vision deteriorating, and I wasn't able to run on my own at that time. And I met a few people who recommended me to this organization. So, for quite a while, I was doing, like, shorter distances. And as time went on, I started doing long endurance events.
NNAMDIWhy is it called Achilles, by the way? Does it have to do with my Achilles heel? (laugh)
RAMIREZNo. I think it's related to, like, this Greek history and mythology. I'm not exactly sure, but, yeah.
NNAMDIAchilles is a part of Greek Mythology. At Achilles International, meet-ups, sighted volunteers come to run with athletes who are blind. How does that partnership work?
RAMIREZYeah. So, Achilles matches volunteers with athletes with any types of disabilities. So, it does not have to be blindness so we welcome anybody, all runners at all levels. So, for blind runners, some people use tethers which could be a rope, a shoelace. So, you tag along the guide, and the volunteer guide provides verbal instruction, like different cues such as like go left, go right keeping the blind athlete aware of any obstacles ahead. And, also, you know, a description of whatever the scenery is and things like that.
RAMIREZAnd, over time, maybe volunteers might be a little bit hesitant, but it all depends. Everybody has different personalities. And it's mostly commonsense. And it's not difficult. It takes a little bit of practice, but people get to know each other a little bit more during these runs. Friendships are developed. And the whole idea behind it is to build a network of support or friendship, so people who are blind are able to train if they just want to do runs on their own. Or if they sign up for races and they want to train specifically for those races. So, we help them provide the network of support.
NNAMDILet me talk with Nina in Washington, D.C. who wants to talk about that. Nina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NINAWell, it's very nice to have the chance to join the discussion. I'm a guide with Achilles International in D.C. and know it well. Just to offer a little bit of perspective and insight into the experience of guides and guiding, it's very much a two-way street. And, as Irwin says, it's a relationship that evolves over time.
NINAAnd the one thing I've learned -- you know, I ran solo for 12 years. I'd never run in a group. And learning to guide somebody and be responsible for every step of the way in a race or in the leadoff and training, it's an incredibly intimate relationship that develops between guide and athlete. And I guess one of the things I have taken away is that learning to run with athletes with disabilities, you realize every day what kinds of challenges they face. And it's one of the most inspiring relationships that one can have.
NINAI just recently completely the New York City Marathon with a blind athlete. And we trained for a year together and completed the whole marathon. And of all the marathons I've ever done, it was one of the most emotional and meaningful races I've ever done. And I think Achilles serves a really excellent mission, and it's a very diverse community.
NNAMDINina, thank you very much for sharing that story with us. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about blind athletes. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about playing sports with vision loss with Kurt Sloop, a goalball athlete and a board member of the Metro Washington Association of Blind Athletes. Charlie Mitchell is a hockey player with the Washington Blind Hockey Club and a member of U.S.A. Blind Hockey team. Irwin Ramirez is the president of Achilles International's D.C. chapter and a marathon runner. Irwin, you do run competitive races like the Boston Marathon. What do you need to be aware of for those competitive races, and what do you expect from the sighted volunteers running with you?
RAMIREZSo, for training for a marathon, there are so many things that go into it. There is a lot of preparation, and it's really important to pick the right team. One of the rules -- I don't call it rules, but when matching volunteers with athletes, it's really important to know that the volunteer needs to be, like, about 30 percent faster than the athlete. And the reason why, because it takes extra efforts to provide verbal cues and instruction, especially in these long endurance events, where there's so many factors that play into it, like the weather, how people feel that day. So, it's really important to have more than one guide at the marathon distance.
RAMIREZSo, one athlete could be tethered to -- one volunteer can be tethered to the blind athlete, and another one can serve as the pacer or helping the athlete with nutrition and things like that. And, you know, in case something goes wrong and one person doesn't feel good, you know, that the athlete could complete the race with all the factors being, you know, good.
NNAMDIKurt, we got a tweet from Scarlet, who said: I have played goalball competitively for 11 years. It's provided me with an escape from the stereotypes that disability is static, that it's some kind of burden that weighs me down. Adaptive sports are freeing and allow me to live an active and exciting life. Care to comment?
SLOOPI would say that is absolutely true and, you know, definitely the best thing about getting involved in a sport. It shows you what you can do. Puts you on a playing field where you're equal. You're not really working from a disability. Especially in goalball, everybody's on the same level. I believe I know Scarlet. I think she's one of our women's team members, which is the D.C. Corruption. But, yeah, I completely agree. It just lets you not have to even think about being blind for that time that you're playing, really.
NNAMDICharlie, both you and Kurt took time away from sports when you first began losing vision. What was it like to get involved with sports again?
MITCHELLYeah. So, I think to echo what Kurt said, my experience was I felt like I was continuously losing little bits of my independence and also losing the opportunity to do things I really enjoyed doing, like biking and playing hockey and playing other sports.
MITCHELLSo, to get something back, when I started playing blind hockey was really just, you know, life-changing, because I felt like I was getting out there, being active in the community. And also it's an incredible support network and pier group, because you have not only the visual impairment in common and can relate on that front, but we all love hockey, as well. We all love, you know, the friendly competition of athletics. And, yeah, so it's just a fantastic way to not let your visual impairment sideline you.
NNAMDIHere's May Bell in Silver Spring, Maryland. May Bell, your turn.
MAY BELLHi. Yeah, so, I'm May Bell, and I just wanted to tell you that, first of all, I do understand the athletes that are blind, because I have started a group called Out of Sight Dragons. And this group of athletes actually race in dragon boat racing teams. And we race other sighted teams every year. We go to Baltimore. We go to Richmond. And, of course, the first opening of the dragon boat season is in May. And so we race on the Potomac with sighted teams.
MAY BELLSo, it's a pretty wonderful group. When I started it, I just learned how competitive that blind people are. They have this can-do spirit, which tells me that they can do anything they want to do, as long as they have the opportunity to do it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for calling. And Scarlet was not satisfied with tweeting to us. Scarlet has called in (laugh) on this show. So, Scarlet is in Harrisonburg. Scarlet, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SCARLETHi. Yes, my name is Scarlet Hishimoto. I currently work for James Madison University's Office of Disability Services. I'm also a social worker, and part of my responsibility as a social worker is to provide resources and access to resources for students with disabilities on campus.
SCARLETAnd part of that is when college students come to campus, a lot of times sports takes the background, especially when it comes to persons with disabilities and that, because of their disability, they have to work harder. They have to strive to accommodate for the disability in academics, and so physical activity can sometimes take the background to such things. And finding activities on college campuses for students can be difficult. So, it's incredibly important.
NNAMDIAnd what's your relationship to goalball?
SCARLETMy goalball, yes, yes, sorry. Yeah, so I am one of Kurt's teammates, and I've played goalball for 11 years. I started when I was 13, and now play goalball with the Metro Washington Association for Blind Athletes. Now I'm 24, and it has really provided me a sense of, I guess, completion, activity that I was missing in my life. There was a point in my life where I was depressed, and goalball really provided me a way to free myself from that and get out there and meet new people, and a sense of reality that I was missing.
NNAMDILove hearing about that. We're running out of time very quickly, unfortunately. Irwin, you're one of the more competitive runners at Achilles International, but what is the range of competitiveness among the athletes who run with Achilles?
RAMIREZSo, I like to -- you know, one of my -- what I've noticed so far at Achilles, there are so many people who come at all levels. And it's really important for me to know the difference between giving and receiving. Many of the volunteers come with the hope of enabling others, so they can meet their fitness levels. Many of those guys have been competitive in the past. They have achieved many things that others haven't. And they have a joy of enabling others to do what they have done. And I think that's something really important to notice. That's the beauty of Achilles.
RAMIREZAnd we welcome anybody, at all levels. It doesn't even have to be about running. Like, we have groups that go for walks and jogs. And even if you don't run, you can just simply show up to get to know people and see how you can get involved and to be able to participate in running. So, our whole mission is to get people involved into running events.
NNAMDIHere's Karen in Washington, D.C. Karen, we don't have a lot of time left, but you have an important question.
KARENYes. Could you please tell me where I could see a game or get involved as a volunteer? But I'm not an athlete.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Where can Karen see a goalball game? Where can Karen see a blind hockey game?
SLOOPSo, I would say for goalball, we generally practice at the Columbia Heights Recreation Center every Saturday morning from 10:00 to 1:00. We have a tournament here in the D.C. area once a year. That's not scheduled yet, but if you'll look at the gomwawata.org website, you know, it'll be posted there.
NNAMDIAnd, Charlie, where can Karen see a blind hockey game?
MITCHELLSo, if you look at the Washington Blind Hockey Club Facebook page, it'll have our practice times, which are every Sunday morning at the MedStar complex in Ballston. So, we're there every Sunday practicing. Unfortunately, we haven't had a blind hockey tournament here in D.C. yet, but I think that will probably happen in the not-too-distant future.
NNAMDICharlie Mitchell, he's a hockey player with the Washington Blind Hockey Club and a member of U.S.A. Blind Hockey. Charlie, thank you so much for joining us.
MITCHELLThank you for having me.
NNAMDIKurt Sloop is a goalball athlete and a board member of the Metro Washington Association of Blind Athletes. Kurt, thank you for joining us.
RAMIREZThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Irwin Ramirez is the president of Achilles International's D.C. chapter and a marathon runner. Irwin, thank you for joining us.
RAMIREZThank you so much for having me here.
NNAMDIThis segment about sports played by blind and low-vision athletes was produced by Cydney Grannan. And our conversation about the District's youth poet laureate was produced by Richard Cunningham.
NNAMDIJoin us tomorrow, when we talk about civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer and the actress who is bringing her life story to the Washington area. Plus, Washington, D.C. was recently named the most bedbug-infested city in the country, and for many D.C. tenants, it's not clear who's responsible for dealing with that problem. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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