Jun 28, 2013

A Second Chance at Sports

By: Lindsay Simpson, Masters student at University of Maryland

For the first time in her life, 17-year-old Ali Lawson can proudly say that she is an athlete, and last weekend she competed in the Goalball National Championship Tournament in Vancouver, Wash.  

Lawson was born with a rare mutation of the degenerative eye disease, Leber's Congenital Amaurosis (LCA).  LCA is a hereditary disorder that often results in vision loss or blindness.  While Lawson still has enough vision to send text messages to all of her friends, using adaptive screen features, she is unable to do many of the things her friends do, like playing sports. 

Lawson comes from a very athletic family and sports were a part of her childhood.  By middle school, her vision had deteriorated so much that she could no longer compete without risking injury to herself or to the other children on the field.  This was a devastating blow to Lawson, who wanted nothing more to have her name on the back of a jersey.

Just over two years ago, Lawson was introduced to the world of goalball, a sport created in the 1940s for blinded World War II Veterans.

Goalball is played on a volleyball size court and each of the boundaries are marked by taped string so the athletes can feel where they are.  The ball is just larger than a basketball with a bell inside of it.  As the ball is rolled down the court, the players on the other team listen for the bells and try to stop the ball before it rolls into the goal behind them.

“Goalball is [a lot] like other sports.  There are three people defending the goal and the object of the game is to get the ball in the goal behind the line.  You have to block the ball, you can only use your ears and your body because you’re blindfolded so everyone has the same disability,” Lawson said.

“It was hard [at first], but it was pretty awesome…to lay on the ground and get hit with the ball,” Lawson said of her first time playing goalball at a summer camp for visually impaired kids in 2011.

Later that year, Lawson was invited to travel to a tournament in Birmingham with the Atlanta Force girl’s goalball team.  The team lost all of their games in that tournament, but Lawson could not have been more ecstatic. 

“Everyone kept telling me what a good athlete I was.  It was always a secret dream of mine to be a good athlete.  I didn’t feel empty anymore,” Lawson said.  She finally found her sport.

Goalball has given Lawson something to work for, and like other high school aged athletes hoping to play a sport at the next level, she has made training a part of her daily routine. 

Lawson entered a national fitness competition the WellPoint Foundation sponsored through their partnership with the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA), a member of the U.S Olympic Committee.  The WellPoint fitness challenge encouraged blind youth to focus on their health and fitness.  

Lawson began working out on a regular basis, lifting weights, running and circuit training.  She was the female winner from Atlanta and will receive a trip to the Olympic Training Center in July to watch the International Blind Sports Association (IBSA) Pan Am Goalball games, which is a competition between American countries that serves as a qualifier for the IBSA World Championships next summer. 

As a result of the challenge and her drive to succeed in her goalball career, fitness became a part of Lawson’s regular routine that she has continued even though the challenge has ended.  Lawson feels stronger and better than ever now that she is fit.

Two years ago, if you had asked Lawson what her biggest dream in life was, she would tell you that it was to be an athlete, play sports, and hear someone cheer for her.  When you ask her today, she will tell you that it is to make the U.S. Goalball National Team and compete in the Paralympics. 

Lawson’s life has changed since she discovered goalball and she readily admits that being visually impaired has given her opportunities she might never have experienced otherwise.

Thanks to the world of blind sports, Lawson is only beginning her athletic career.

Ali blocking the ball


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