The Aussie Belles—Australia’s women’s goalball team—may be an unfunded team playing a minority sport but Blind Sports Australia’s inaugural ambassadors are Tokyo bound.
When she’s on the goalball court, Raissa Martin feels strong. She feels ready to pounce on any ball that comes her way.
“That’s the best part of the game. Just that waiting for the ball and pouncing,” she says. “If you can’t tell, I love defensive aspects of the game.”
Raissa grew up dreaming of going to the Paralympics. Later this year, she’ll go to her second with the Belles, the Australian women’s goalball team. As one of the more experienced players on the team, she is very aware of what you need to do to make it to the elite level.
“You need to live and breathe a sport, and you need to love it and you need to love the people around you as well. And you’ve got to buy in and to understand everything that’s going to happen, the highs and the lows.”
Last year dealt the Belles plenty of lows, but with the games only a few months away and a new role as the inaugural ambassadors for Blind Sports Australia, the highs are well within their grasp.
Signs are good for the Belles
The Hangar at Tullamarine, a suburb in Melbourne’s north-west, is the home of the Essendon Football Club. It’s a giant building, a mass of steel and glass not far from the city’s major airport. It’s also home to Paralympics Australia, and in late autumn, to the Belles who are in the middle of a three-day training camp. With the team based all around the country—players and coaches in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales—these camps are an opportunity to work on their game play, but also a chance to bond. To build those relationships that are so crucial for team success.
Spearheading the Belles is a trio of experienced campaigners in Tyan Taylor, Jenny Blow and Meica Horsburgh. Tokyo will be their third Paralympics. Raissa Martin rounds out this quartet of experience—Tokyo will be her second rodeo. They’re joined by Brodie Smith and Amy Ridley, both of whom will be making their Paralympics debut in Tokyo after starring at youth championships.
“I think we’ve got a good blend,” Coach Peter Corr says of the team. “We pride ourselves on not just relying on three or four players, we want to go six deep. Not many countries do that. And I think we need to do that. So, the signs are good in terms of the blend.”
Peter is no stranger to the Paralympics. As coach of the Australian women’s wheelchair basketball team, the Gliders, he was a part of four campaigns: Barcelona, Atlanta, Atlanta and Sydney. He was offered a role with goalball in the lead up to the London games. Initially managing the Australian goalball program before he took over as senior coach of the Belles after London.
This training camp—the fourth the team has had post-COVID-19 lockdowns—is especially exciting for the team. They’re playing their first proper game of goalball in 18 months. Their last hit out was the bronze medal game against Korea in Japan in December 2019. Corr has assembled an opposition team from the Melbourne goalball community. It’s a great opportunity for the Belles to get some valuable game time but it’s also a great opportunity for me to see the sport played live. Video is great, but it’s no substitute to the real thing. Because the real thing is fast, physically demanding and yes, at times chaotic.
The how and why of goalball
“Reverse dodgeball,” Brodie Smith says when I ask her to describe goalball. It’s a succinct, and a somewhat accurate, if simple descriptor. But it’s not quite the full story.
Unlike many sports at the Paralympics, goalball is not an adapted version of an existing sport. Created for people who are blind or vision impaired, it was invented in 1946 as a form of rehabilitation for World War II veterans with vision impairments. Goalball debuted at the 1976 Paralympics in Canada and the first Australian Goalball Championships were held in 1980. Today, the sport is played around the country. The Belles have been competing at the elite level since their debut at the Atlanta Paralympics in 1996.
The basics: Goalball is played on a court 18m long and 9m wide, with goals that resemble soccer goals running the width of the court at either end. There are six players on the court at any one time, three from each team. The court itself is split into four sections. Two sections, one at either end of the court measuring 9m by 3m are the defensive domain of either team. The two sections in the middle are called the neutral area.
Tactile markings on the court ensure the players can orientate themselves because the game requires that they have zero vision on court. Regardless of the vision impairment a player has, all players must wear surgical eyepatches secured with tape in addition to visors or shields. It’s a way to level the playing field because players can have varying degrees of vision off court.
The ball in goalball is a behemoth that weighs 1.25 kilograms. It’s made of rubber and a series of small holes drilled into the ball ensure that the noise from the bells inside can be heard by the players. The goal is to throw the ball down the court and get past your opposition and score a goal. Sounds simple? Not quite.
“You do take some pretty big hits,” Raissa says. “It’s a really fast paced sport…You can do those really agile movements and then get back and have like a half a second to relax and reset and then have to do another movement, like a dive or something like that. It’s a difficult one to train for, because you need to be quite strong, quite agile and have that balance of power and agility.”
Fast. Physical. Aggressive. Tactical, too.
“That’s one thing people don’t really realise when they watch goalball is the amount of strategy that goes behind it,” Brodie says. “We implement throwing strategies and throwing patterns and try and open up a specific spot to try and score a goal at a very specific point. It’s a lot of strategy and just trying to hit the right spot at the right time. And a lot of that gets lost when you’re just watching goalball for the first time.”
That’s not all. Goalball requires intense focus. This isn’t a sport that forgives a lapse in concentration. After defending against a throw, players must immediately reset for offence. They have just ten seconds to throw the ball and then only seconds again to switch back to defence. This cycle repeats for up to 50 throws a half or 100 a game.
“It’s deceptive when you watch it on video, it’s just not the same,” Peter says. “You’ve got this super tense situation where everything’s played in silence. So, you can hear every little squeak and the concentration has to stay to just make sure that you’re preventing this missile from getting past.”
Yes, silence. Because the players have no vision on court, they must listen for their teammates, for the opposition and for the ball. Crowds are expected to be silent and the rules of goalball demand that silence from players too. For instance, as soon as the player throwing the ball moves to do so, their teammates must be silent. If they don’t, they give away a penalty and the opposition has a free shot at goal with only one defender to worry about.
So, definitely not simple.
“I actually hated sport with a passion”
Back at the Hangar, it’s the end of the first half of the practice game and Brodie is crouched in the middle of the Belles’ defensive quarter, defending a penalty. In a few seconds, the heavy blue rubber ball will come barrelling towards her. It’s her job to stop that ball from sliding into the goals that run the width of the court behind her. She’s poised, ready. As the ball comes towards her, she dives across the court, the ball smacking against her body. She’s saved the penalty.
“I was the biggest couch potato you’d ever seen,” Brodie says. “Prior to playing goalball I actually had never played sport in my life. I actually hated sport with a passion.”
You wouldn’t know it the way she moves across the court. Hate has clearly been replaced with love. Brodie first came across goalball at a Braille Camp as a teenager. It was the lure of travel that encouraged her to pursue the sport. She started playing in a Sydney competition and within a year she was playing at the state and national championships.
“I made selection for the Australian youth team the following year, when I turned 17… And then in 2018, I made my debut on the Aussie women’s team at the World Championships in Sweden.”
Brodie has retinitis pigmentosa, which affects her peripheral vision. Though she has some sight, she’s classified as legally blind. While Brodie may not have had a lifelong love for sport, in a few short months she’ll be wearing the green and gold on an international stage. It’s something she says is still surreal.
“I remember when I was younger, I’d watch the Paralympics or the Olympics on TV and I’m like, ‘wow, these athletes are incredible, like they’ve trained so hard and must have wanted this for so long’. And like it’s just, it’s crazy to think that that’s now me.”
Joining Brodie on the biggest sporting stage in the world will be Raissa who says she has learnt just as much from her younger teammates as she’s been able to teach them.
“It is awesome to be a mentor but it’s also awesome to ask for their advice in return because you never know what a younger athlete, what their perspective might be on a particular technique or a particular aspect of the game.”
Raissa has rod monochromatism. It’s a condition that affects her retina and means she’s colour blind.
“In layman’s terms, I don’t see any colour. I see mainly just movements… And everything is far too bright. So yeah, I’m functioning with night vision all the time.”
Raissa grew up in regional Queensland and while she knew about goalball, her options to play were limited. It was only after moving to Brisbane for university that she finally found her way to a court. Inspired by one of her current teammates, Meica Horsburgh, she joined a social competition at 21
“Within the next couple of years, I was on to the Australian squad. And by 2015, I was selected up to the Australian team to actually compete… It happened really quickly in my opinion. But I’ve just been so lucky to have that opportunity and to play with the right kind of people to bring me to that level.”
There may be a smidgeon of luck involved but there’s plenty of talent, too. Raissa was a track athlete all through primary and high school and while she describes the transition from individual to team sport as a little nerve wracking, she adores her chosen sport.
“I love that it’s a sport that I can play and then someone with a different eye condition can play and someone who’s totally blind can play and then someone with perfect sight can play… It’s such a unique sport. I can’t sell it highly enough… it is a sport designed specifically for vision impairment and blindness. That is the reason I love it so much. It’s unique.”
The impact of COVID-19
The Belles secured their qualification for Tokyo at the International Blind Sports Federation ranking tournament in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 2019. After qualifying a little earlier than anticipated, the team jumped into preparation. Then COVID hit. With all the uncertainty, Peter made the call to give the team some time away from the intense training and preparation.
“A lot of our energy had gone into our qualification for Tokyo… so, we were right at the peak of our training,” Peter says. “I basically said, keep yourselves fit but look after yourself and get your mental health right. That is, let’s deal with this COVID thing but don’t be too harsh on yourself in terms of what you’re doing for goalball. I needed to give them a mental break.”
It’s a decision the team responded positively too. “I probably took about a two-month hiatus, but it was something that I really needed to kind of reset and realign myself,” Brodie says of the imposed break.
“I really am so grateful that we had that guidance and we made those decisions,” says Raissa who took the opportunity to improve her game. “I’ve been able to work on some one step throws that are really, I feel that are really impactful. I’ve been able to work on some stronger defensive techniques, and that’s what I’m really enjoying, because it lends itself to my style of play, which is a little bit chaotic. So, I’m actually really excited because I don’t think I would have got that opportunity 12 months ago. I would have had to go in with what I had at the time.”
Throughout COVID, with the team spread across the east coast of the country, they kept in contact with regular Zoom catch ups. Peter utilised Paralympics Australia’s remote training program to check in on the players in their solo training sessions. The work they did on their own meant they were ready to get straight back into training together when their first training camp rolled around in December last year. Since then, it’s been back to a regular schedule.
“We’ve sort of astounded people because as an unfunded program, we’ve run four camps on the tail end of COVID,” Peter says. “And we’re the only Paralympic team sport who’s managed to get four camps up and running.” Peter says the team must take the credit for the way they’ve managed to keep themselves connected and on track despite the tumultuous year. “They pulled together by basically staying connected. And knowing that we’ve got a common goal to go after and that we deserve this.”
With their preparation for the games back on track. Brodie says it’s “just been all guns going, essentially…everything is just coming together. We’re getting back to that level we were at before COVID hit that like focus, it’s goalball and nothing [else] essentially.”
As Tokyo approaches, the training camps are ramping up. Two days have become three day and outside the camps, it’s regular gym sessions and local goalball training. For athletes that must combine work and study with their sport, it’s an intense workload.
“It is a sacrifice, but it’s not one I’m unwilling to make for sure,” Raissa says. The payoff comes at the camps, she says, when the results of the hard work translate to the court. “A big thing that’s coming through now is our concentration and fitness is through the roof.”
Brodie, who is in the gym five to seven days a week, knows she’s stronger and she sees the same in her teammates.
“I feel like as a team, we’re actually playing the best we’ve ever played together as a group. And that [is] credit to every single girl’s hard work that’s on that team. Because COVID was hard. We didn’t train with each other for months. And we were all doing our own thing. But to see where we’re at now, compared to where we were before COVID hit, we’re a lot stronger. We’re a lot closer. And I feel as a team, we’re just playing a lot better. And I’m excited to see how that will carry through to the Paralympic Games.”
As the Paralympics approach, that excitement is rippling throughout the team. Raissa says that while the team’s style may look a little chaotic from the outside, she says that works in the Belles’ favour because it makes them unpredictable.
“We’ve got so many different types of throws. More than I think some other countries might have. They might rely on one to two throwers. I think that we’re not afraid to rely on some of the other throwers and to see what they can actually add to the game.”
Belles inaugural Blind Sports Australia ambassadors
Contributing to the game is something the Belles are keen to do off the court as well. The team was recently named as the inaugural ambassadors for Blind Sports Australia. It’s a role that recognises not only the success and potential of the team but also the role they can play in encouraging other people who are blind or visually impaired to get involved in sport.
“Frankly, it’s really not fun when you can’t play a sport. Or you don’t feel like you can,” Raissa says. The Belles, she says, are “absolutely passionate about vision impairment and blind sport and advocating and accessibility… We’re showing what blind athletes can do.”
“I feel that sport has given [me] confidence… feeling strong, you stand a little bit taller, you feel a little bit prouder. So you feel you transfer those skills into other areas of your life. I just want everyone to be able to experience that,” Raissa says.
Blind Sports Australia (BSA) works with organisations around the country to grow sporting opportunities for people who are blind or vision impaired. According to BSA, there are around 400,000 Australians who are blind or visually impaired but only about 6000 participate in blind sport through clubs or school programs.
Felicity Wilkinson, BSA’s Marketing and Partnerships Manager says the ambassadorship is of immense value to BSA.
“[The Belles] help amplify our voice and personify blind sports for the general community. Passionate and committed ambassadors such as the Belles help make the emotional connections with the public.
“Our partnership with the Belles is mutually beneficial. As our ambassadors, they help promote community awareness of blind sports, and in return we support the Belles by raising the teams’ profile and investing our time and resources in their push towards Paralympic success.”
Some of those resources have already included helping the Belles to secure goal nets that are easy to transport. It means the team can play more games and ensures they get the most out of their training camps.
As a self-described former couch potato, the value of role models is especially significant for Brodie. “I hated sport and I feel like that partly was in relation to the fact that I felt like I couldn’t play.” Brodie says teachers who told her to stand on the side lines may have had her best interests at heart, but it didn’t feel like that at the time. “I always felt like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this. They don’t think I can do this. I don’t want to play this’. And so, I didn’t enjoy sport.”
All that has changed for Brodie and like Raissa she wants to empower more people, of all ages, with vision impairment to pick up a ball or a racket and get involved in sport.
“Again, it goes back to that surreal experience. I never thought I would be in this position. I never thought I’d be having interviews like this talking about my sporting achievements and my sporting career and the fact that I’m going to a Paralympics…. And so, to be in this position, it’s an incredible honour and something that I don’t take lightly. And if I can get at least one kid interested to be involved in sport, and it can be as life changing as it was for me, then I’m here for it.”
No easy games for Belles
With the ambassadorship for Blind Sports Australia comes the potential for more financial support from sponsors. Goalball is a minority sport. That means funding is hard to come by. Technically, the Belles are an unfunded sport. They financed their qualification for the games from their own pockets.
Even qualifying, which the Belles did in 2019, doesn’t solve the money situation. The monthly camps were initially self-funded by the team. But Paralympics Australia now provides financial support, covering half the cost of each camp and the teams uses the elite facilities at the Hangar for their training camps. Peter, who is aware of the nuances and complexities of funding for athletes, says that “to Paralympics Australia’s credit, the moment we qualified, because we were the first Paralympic Australian team to qualify, they’ve gone out of their way to try and find funding to support us.”
Still, the money question remains. At Tokyo, the Belles will be up against teams that live very different sporting lives, some as full-time paid athletes. Add to this that Australia is geographically isolated when it comes to goalball with competition concentrated in Europe and North America. While Peter is conscious of the distraction of the funding question, and how draining it can be to stretch every dollar, he focuses on what he and the team can do with what they have.
“We’re a successful women’s team in a low-profile sport who qualified for their third Paralympics in a row. And we’ve done it, really, with nearly no funding and through the determination of athletes who go to work every day,” Peter says.
“We’re not going to go into Tokyo with excuses. The bottom line is we’re going to take what we’ve got, and we’re going to give it our best shot… We’re just gonna go for broke. And we’ve got a group of people who are committed to doing that. Because they’re prepared to put their own time, their own energy, their own money, and their own sacrifice into it.”
At Tokyo, the team will need to play seven games to make it to the gold medal game. They won’t be easy games. The Belles are likely to come up against some powerhouse teams, like China, Turkey and the US. “We don’t fear anybody but there isn’t an easy game,” Peter says. “Our job will be game one. Get a win.”
The extra visibility of the sport that comes with an international platform is something Raissa says the team is enthusiastic about. “Seeing it at Tokyo will be a big eye opener for a lot of people because it’s the first time it’ll be live streamed. And I’m so excited for people to see it. I can’t wait.”
While there are some concerns about what quarantine requirements might look like, and how the games will run, the overriding feeling is that excitement.
“I’m super excited,” Brodie says. “It’s surreal to kind of feel like ‘oh, that’s actually me. I’m actually getting to represent my country at the highest level of sport in the world’. That’s just so exciting. And considering, as I said before, I wanted nothing to do [with sport] before to have that 180 turn around and be where I am is absolutely incredible.”