Goalball, the sport played by the blind and visually impaired for over 75 years across the globe, has only just begun to make its way to this area of the world. It might be the coolest sport you’ve never heard of, and that’s because most people don’t associate visual impairment with athletics. This weekend, the Georgia Blind Sports Association is hosting a multi-team tournament that members of the Savannah Goalball program hope will aid in their growth after being formed in November of 2022.
The inaugural Savannah Youth Goalball Invitational is scheduled for Saturday, April 29 and the event includes boys and girls teams from Savannah, Atlanta, South Carolina and Florida. St. Peter the Apostle Parish Center (7200 Concord Road) is the venue, and the public is encouraged to attend games running from 8 a.m. through 4 p.m.
Matthew Gavin is a 13-year-old member of the Savannah Goalball Team. He is the de facto captain of the squad, and that’s because he has the most experience with the game he never expected to stumble into. Born with a rare genetic disorder which severely limited his vision, Matthew’s coach Brittany Vaughn, along with Matthew and his mother are the primary reasons for Goalball existing in Savannah.
“We didn’t know what his genetic disorder was until this past summer,” said Michelle Gavin during a phone call on April 23. “It’s called RPGRIP1, and it’s a form of LCA (Leber Congenital Amaurosis). “We see a specialist in Rochester (New York) at the University of Rochester. A pediatric (ocular) geneticist. They’re looking for a cure – not a cure – but a form of gene therapy that could restore some of the vision abilities that (Matthew) lost, but that’s still (five to) 10 years away.”
They thought it was something that wouldn’t get worse. When it did. They knew it was something more.
Matthew, also on the phone call, speaks with the confidence of a seasoned, confident athlete. He is refreshingly matter-of-fact when telling his story. And, like most 13-year-old boys, he speaks about his favorite sport like it is the greatest game ever invented. Like it changed his life. And it may well have. His genetic disorder wasn’t supposed to reach the level it has. It wasn’t supposed to get worse. It did.
“At first, it was mostly just, like, color blindness and light sensitivity, and low vision. But, it wasn’t so bad if it stayed like that,” he said. “My eyesight started losing … Well I was losing my vision for large chunks of time and then for a few years I lost more and more and more of my vision. I was looking for things to do. Ever since I found goalball, it has been so amazing. It might be the best thing that ever happened to me.”
It would have been easy to sink into grief, and easy to use the stroke of awful luck as an excuse. And more than easy, it would have been understandable, normal even. But Matthew Gavin isn’t normal, and his mom’s nudge is what led to him first finding the sport that he now gushes over. She had heard about a free clinic for goalball being held in Savannah in June of 2022. It was hosted by the coach of the Atlanta goalball team (one of just two organized teams in Georgia at the time) and Michelle instantly shared the thought with her son.
“My mom was like, ‘You should try this sport, it’s called goalball.’ And so I was like ‘Yeah.’ Because at the time, I had recently lost more of my vision, so I didn’t have a lot to do. So we went out, we tried it, and then I instantly fell in love with the sport. It was just so cool. I mean it was so cool and so fun.
“I never believed that I would be able to play sports and actually enjoy it. I love this sport. It has made me feel better about myself in general, because I used to think that I was never going to be able to do anything normal again, like play a sport. It helped my self-esteem. Like I said, I never thought I’d be on a team or playing a sport or doing anything like this.”
If Matthew has found a renewed sense of purpose through goalball, his mother has found a semi-calling it seems.
“We want people to see kids with disabilities as able to do things,” she said. “Don’t feel sorry for Matthew, you know? And I just want more (parents) to say yes, because Matthew has been very lucky to have been surrounded by people who helped him figure out how to do things, and I want more people to not be afraid.
“If Matthew or kids like him want to … when he’s looking for a summer job or at going to college, don’t be afraid. You are able.”
Able and athletic. Goalball is not a leisure activity from the looks of it. Georgia has three goalball teams currently: One based out of Savannah, one in Atlanta and one in Macon at the Georgia Academy for the Blind. To be sure, there are many things which make the sport unique, including that goalball is the only paralympic sport solely for blind and visually impaired athletes.
Goalball games are played by three players on the court for each team. Every player, regardless of where they fall on the visually impaired spectrum, wears “black-out goggles” to ensure the playing field is even. With two timed halves and a goal on either end, points are awarded when a team successfully rolls the ball into the opponent’s net.
The ball, which Matthew describes as a “heavier basketball that hasn’t been pumped up,” contains several bells so that players can locate its position and anticipate its movements.
Vaughn was introduced to the game in May 2022 through the tutelage of Hal Simpson. Simpson is the coach for the Atlanta goalball team, the founder of Georgia Blind Sports Association. Together, the two hosted the goalball camp in Savannah last summer. That’s when the Gavins first learned of the sport.
Vaughn, 30, first met Matthew back in 2018 when she became his O&M (Orientation and Mobility) Specialist. As an O&M, Vaughn teaches youth with visual impairments to travel safely, confidently and independently. She is no longer Matthew’s O&M. Now, she’s his coach.
“Things like learning how to cross a street and getting from one place to another generally,” she said of her role during an April 24 phone call. “So while I’m going through a learning stage kind of with the game of goalball, I’m able to coach them, I think, because I’ve worked with all of these kids individually at one point or another.”
Simpson, whose son played on the U.S. Paralympic Goalball team, says the lessons learned through athletics are ones that visually impaired youth need as much as any other kid maturing through middle school and high school.
“Sports allow young people who are blind and visually impaired to develop independence through competition,” said Simpson. “People who are blind or visually impaired must have the opportunity to experience the thrill of victory and the reality of defeat. (Goalball) teams allow young athletes to be part of a team with similar demands that their sighted friends experience, such as teamwork, the discipline of training for competition, setting goals and developing a healthy lifestyle.”
Michelle agrees, and she is hoping the community will continue to help spread the word and support the team’s mission by attending things like Saturday’s showcase event.
“It’s all about fighting. You have to fight for your kids and as a mom, you know that a lot of families don’t have the resources to fight like they want to,” she said. “We think this sport and the lessons learned through it can help (other visually impaired) kids (in the Savannah area).”
Vaughn echoed that sentiment, saying the only obstacle so far has been finding kids of high school ages to play.
“There are more (visually impaired) kids in the area than you would think,” Vaughn said. “But kids want to play with kids their own age, and right now our teams have young kids for the most part. A lot of the time, their sighted peers have a tendency to ‘over help.’ So learning how to be a team player, and how to receive help and give help … those skills we sometimes take for (granted) are invaluable to our kids.”
A mom, a son, and a sport like no other: It’s a trio with impact potential.
“In the end, it’s just about letting other people in the community know that these kids can do anything that they set their minds to,” said Michelle. “They just don’t do it in the same way.”
For more information about the Savannah youth goalball team, including how to join the organization or how to support the growth of Savannah’s team, send an email to SavannahGoalBall@gmail.com.