New athletic team breaks barriers for the disabled

UC Berkeley’s newest sports team may be small, with just seven players, but it carries a big distinction – it’s the nation’s first competitive college athletic team for blind students. Chancellor Nicholas Dirks congratulated the co-ed Cal goalball team at its class last Friday and presented the student-athletes – and a service dog, Van Dyke  – with their uniforms.

Chancellor Dirks with girl

Chancellor Dirks presents goalball player Judith Lung with her jersey. (UC Berkeley photos by Kevin Ho Nguyen)

“You’re setting a new moment in history,” he told the players, before watching their practice in a Recreational Sports Facility gym. He praised them for having “the will and the courage” to forge a new path in higher education for student-athletes with disabilities.

“I never imagined I’d ever play sports on a team,” said Judith Lung, a senior and secretary of the Disabled Students Union, describing to the chancellor time spent as a child “playing with paper and doing quiet activities. Here at Berkeley, I was given a chance to be on a team, to be competitive, to experience something I never could have imagined in my life.”

Goalball is an all-year team sport designed for the visually impaired in which players compete in teams of three and try to hurl a heavy rubber ball, with bells embedded in it, into the opponents’ goal. Whether blind or not, players must wear blindfolds, and they communicate with each other by tapping the floor with their hands and calling out a teammate’s name to pass the ball. They rely on the sound of the bells to judge the position and movement of the ball, which can travel up to 30 miles per hour.

Athletics for All

The team meets in a new, two-unit, advanced goalball course where the students also study disability and sports, and there is an additional team practice on Saturdays. Advanced Goalball is an outgrowth of a beginning goalball class first offered in 2013 as part of Fitness for All, a pilot program that has now expanded into Athletics for All, a groundbreaking Berkeley project to include people with disabilities in competitive and recreational sports. Athletics for All now offers three goalball courses — beginning, intermediate and advanced  — as well as other sports, has a research component, and strives to hire athletes with disabilities as coaches.

The Goal Ball team

The Cal goalball team and service dog Van Dyke strike a pose at the Rec Sports Facility.

“It’s a civil rights issue,” said Matt Grigorieff, a graduate student and founder of Athletics for All, of the lack of inclusion and opportunities for disabled students in fitness and sports. While the Berkeley goalball team currently has no specific classification, such as being a club or varsity team, he said, “that’s what we’re trying to change.” Grigorieff added that his ultimate goal is to have the National Collegiate Athletic Association recognize and include student-athletes with disabilities, and to add goalball as an NCAA sport.

Currently, there are no other college goalball teams to compete against, so until that happens –  several other schools plan to field teams, following Berkeley’s lead – the team is preparing and bracing for competition against community teams with U.S. Paralympic players and teams within the U.S. Paralympic club system. The Cal goalball team’s first tournament is Dec. 6. The players are in the expert hands of head coach Jonathan Newman of the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP) and coaches Brandon Young, a former Paralympic goalball player, and current Paralympic goalball athlete Joe Hamilton.

A state and national model

The Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund recently granted the financial support needed to create Athletics for All, a collaboration between the campus and BORP. The partnership is developing what will be California’s first vibrant college athletics program for student-athletes – not just those with visual impairments, but with any disability. Major advocacy efforts by the ASUC and Graduate Assembly are helping to drive this vision, which is gaining widespread support from other sectors of the campus community.

“The lack of opportunities nationwide for college athletes with disabilities is the Title IX issue of the 21st century. Your recognition of this team sends an important message about the need for change,” graduate student Jessica Adams, the only sighted player on the team, told Dirks. (U.S. goalball rules allow one teammate to be sighted). Adams, a founder of and instructor in the goalball program and a former Cal volleyball player, said she got involved in Athletics for All because “I couldn’t understand why disabled students didn’t have the same opportunities I did as an athlete. It’s really great to see this moment.”

In addition to goalball, Athletics for All offers Golf with Marty, a class taught by a disabled golf pro who is so popular that the number of hours of instruction has grown from two to seven. Another popular class is Golf Fore Veterans, designed for student-veterans, some of them suffering from PTSD. There are plans in the works for additional inclusive sports including power soccer, which uses electric wheelchairs, and wheelchair basketball.

Students without disabilities, including athletes from teams such as water polo and soccer, also are part of Athletics for All, taking classes about sports and disability, and playing goalball or golf — and forming bonds — with their peers with disabilities.

Unique in higher education, the program is a model already drawing the interest of many colleges and universities across the country. Derek van Rheenen, who directs the Graduate School of Education’s Cultural Studies of Sport in Education concentration, has been invited to make a presentation about Berkeley’s inclusive athletic model at the upcoming November NIRSA Region IV Conference. That event is attended by representatives of recreational sports and Division II and III athletic departments in the western United States.

“This has been more successful than I ever could have imagined,” said van Rheenen, also director of Berkeley’s Athletic Study Center. “What started as a simple opportunity to provide a goalball class connected to disability studies now has three sections and the first goalball team at Berkeley, and one with uniforms. This is sending an increasingly important message about what we stand for as an institution, which is that athletic opportunities should and need to be available for all students, of all skill levels and all abilities, and not only for them to participate in physical education and sports programs, but to compete at the highest levels.”

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