For this week, at least, Fort Wayne is the center of activity for goalball, as the final matches of pool play for the 2019 International Blind Sports Federation international qualifier were played at Turnstone and Indiana Tech on Saturday.
But Fort Wayne, which is home to four of the six members of the women's team, isn't the only hub of activity for the sport. Although members of the team hail from across the United States, a surprising number have ties to Portland, Oregon.
Eliana Mason, now 23, is originally from the Portland area, and was 15 when she met her now-teammate Asya Miller and retired Team USA member Jen Armbruster, who had married each other and moved to Portland.
“They brought goalball to Portland – we'd done some sports camps and things, but goalball was not big, really,” Mason said. “They started having practices at Portland State and invited me to come to them.”
Mason had always enjoyed sports, but had struggled to find one where she felt like she could compete at her best despite her limited vision. At first, she thought of goalball as just a fun activity.
“I was really into gymnastics, and twirling and flips, and so I didn't really love the concept of throwing yourself on the ground at first,” Mason said. “But I kept going to practices, and slowly but surely fell in love with the sport and it my goal to join the Paralympic team.”
Mason attended Portland State University, where Armbruster coordinated inclusive recreation and held Team USA goalball practices. Marybai Huking, 22, took up goalball at around the same time as Mason. The two met at one of Mason's first tournaments, and the two played together on the Youth Worlds Team in 2013. When she graduated high school in Utah in 2015, the 2016 Rio Paralympics were right around the corner.
“With Eliana, Asya and Jen, three of my teammates, out there, Portland State was a really obvious choice, so I went out there and trained with them for a semester,” Huking said. “It was a really great experience to be out there with everybody. We're from all over the country, so to be able to have even a couple players in the same place, to have that high-caliber training all the time, was really important for us.”
After capturing the bronze in Rio, Huking transferred to Utah, where she is set to graduate next fall. After that, she plans to move to Fort Wayne to train for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
“We're under blindfolds, so there are so many small nuances that before, when we'd train three times a year, we'd have to relearn each other's tendencies and habits. You don't want to run over your teammates, you want to know how they're going to hand you the ball,” Huking said. “But when you train together everyday, that's routine. We can focus on our game instead of relearning our teammates.”
But first, they have to officially qualify. After tying Greece 1-1 in their final pool play game on Saturday, the women's team moves on to the quarterfinal round, where they will play Great Britain in the quarterfinal round today at 2 p.m. at Turnstone. The men's team lost 8-3 to China on Saturday to finish third in Pool B behind China and Ukraine. They will play Lithuania at 3:15 p.m. at Indiana Tech.
Notes: Team USA won the silver medal in the inaugural mixed team judo competition Friday night, falling to Ukraine in the championship match. The event, which featured eight teams, is not on the Paralympic program but concluded three days of judo competition in Fort Wayne.