Imagine being blindfolded and hurling—or blocking—a 2.8-pound ball into a soccer-like net. That’s exactly what goalball star Amanda Dennis, 25, has been doing for most of her life.
Born with aniridia, a rare genetic vision disorder that makes her legally blind, Dennis took up the sport of goalball at the age of 7 after attending an adaptive sports education camp in Atlanta. “At the time, I was very averse to playing sports,” says Dennis, who is originally from Peachtree City, Georgia. “I did not want to do it.”
But Dennis’ parents encouraged her to attend an adaptive sports education camp hosted by Blaze Sports America. That’s where she met Paralympic athletes and learned about goalball, a sport created after World War II to help rehabilitate injured soldiers where everyone is blindfolded.
At 15, she qualified for an elite camp that put her on the international playing field—where she competed in her first global event: the Malmö Lady and Men Intercup in Sweden. At 18, she made her Paralympic goalball debut at the 2012 London games with a sixth-place finish. Dennis went to win back-to-back bronze medals at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil and at the 2017 IBSA Americas Championships
Now, she is one of the more than 300 international athletes who’ve been competing at the International Blind Sports Federation’s (ISBA) 2019 Goalball and Judo International Qualifying Competition
in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at the Turnstone Center’s Goalball Center of Excellence. Turnstone
is one of 14 Olympic and Paralympic Training Centers in the U.S. but the only Paralympic Training Center with a specialty in Goalball. It’s the first time an international qualifier for sport of goalball has been held in the United States and the largest international sporting event ever hosted in the city’s history.
Here’s what you should know about Dennis and the sport of goalball.
What’s it like to have aniridia and be legally blind?
It’s a visual impairment that’s pretty rare. Basically, you’re born without your irises. Any light that enters into your eyes is filtered out. Everything looks like whited out, especially if you're outside, or you’re in situations where it's really light out, you just really can't see anything at all.
If someone is right in front of me, I can see general things, like about what height they are, if they have brown hair and whatever the skin tone is, but I won’t be able to see someone waving at me who is 10 feet away.
How do you play goalball?
It’s a three-on-three sport that’s played on a volleyball-sized court, nine by 18 meters. There are raised, tactile lines on the court so players can feel where they are at. Each player is blindfolded and in international competition, there’s adhesive patches that go under your blindfold.
The ball has no air pressure so it doesn’t bounce very easily and it has [a couple] of bells in it. So everyone can hear the ball off the bells so you can track it. You can throw it underhanded or bounce it, but the ball can go 40 to 60 miles per hour on the elite level. It’s like being a kickball pitcher. You’re trying to get the ball past your opponents who are diving on the ground in front of the net that is about five feet tall.
What does it feel like to play goalball?
Goalball is a combat power sport. So you’re looking at quick movements, short bursts of energy. It’s like football where you’re running and then you stop.
How do you train for goalball?
You have to train a lot with weightlifting. It’s not just about creating endurance and cardiovascular ability, it’s also about creating power in yourself. We do a lot of power cleans where you learn how to use your hips you're using your lower body in your hips to propel the ball forward. Your arm is just kind of like a pendulum swing from the side to move the ball forward, by mostly it’s your lower body that’s really creating how fast you throw or not.
We also do tire flips, where we flip a 150-pound tire.
How do you flip a 150-pound tire?
It's kind of like going through a squat, you get your hands under it and you kind of explode up in your arms just kind of follow. It’s nice because it teaches you how to use the power in your hips to be able to flip the tire.
So how did you end up training in Fort Wayne, Indiana?
I came to Fort Wayne in 2017, shortly after the Rio Paralympic Games, I was training with the men’s resident program. I’ve been here two and a half years.
Why did you train with the men’s team?
The men’s program started here in 2015 shortly before the Rio Paralympic Games. They were in a different growth at that point. I was at a stage where I wanted to take goalball to the next level and training with the men can do that…I wanted to learn how to become a better defender and throw a lot better.
If someone is going to visit Fort Wayne, Indiana for the first-time, what’s one of your tips?
There’s this place called Yummi Bunni that I really enjoy. It’s an ice cream place but they stick ice cream inside of a donut. It is really delicious. I always enjoy birthday cake ice cream with their glazed donuts. They call it inside of a bun, but it’s really just a donut cut in half. It’s right next to Fort Wayne’s famous Coney Island where you can get a burger and a hot dog.