Goalball inspires blind devotion among athletes

On the court, he doesn’t so much walk as swagger. Every move is fluid yet purposeful, with the natural athlete’s melding of grace and physicality.

Joe Hamilton dives for the ball during a goalball practice at Sacramento State University. Hamilton

Joe Hamilton dives for the ball during a goalball practice at Sacramento State University. Hamilton

On the court, he doesn’t so much walk as swagger. Every move is fluid yet purposeful, with the natural athlete’s melding of grace and physicality.

A strapping six-foot-four, 225 pounds, he looms as he anticipates a shot, flings his body horizontally to make the save, then nimbly retrieves the ball and fires it toward the opponents’ goal.

Joe Hamilton is the definition of a jock — though he self-deprecatingly calls himself a “sports geek.”

By whatever moniker, he immerses himself in his sport, focusing with ferocity, peppering the action with patter. Encouraging words can be punctuated by a “Yeah, baby!” Trash talk comes in staccato bursts, as when an opponent throws a wildly errant shot. “Jeez, the man is completely discombobulated! Somebody help these guys, baby.”

Even off court, when the 32-year-old talks about the intricacies of a game that has taken him around the world as a member of the U.S. national team, he can’t help but exude passion. He gesticulates fervently. He speaks rapidly. He is transported.

“I love being in the trenches, man. I love stopping that guy who throws 48 miles per hour. Love it. You ain’t getting in this kitchen, baby. Know what I mean? Don’t waste your time here.”

It matters not to Hamilton that his game of choice, goalball, is virtually unknown among sports fans. Nor does he care that some will inevitably dismiss goalball as “just” a Paralympic sport — the only game specifically invented for the blind, and one played by a microscopic subset of the population.

To Hamilton, being blind makes him no less an athlete than sighted superstars in high-profile sports who reap adoration and rake in millions. He’s not afraid to say so and, yeah, talk some goalball smack, too, baby. “No matter who you are — I don’t care if you’re Shaquille O’Neal or Aaron Rodgers; you can be dominant in your sport, you can be an athlete of epic proportions — if you come into my yard, man, you put those shades on, now you have to compete with me on my level.”

In goalball, invented in post-Second World War Germany to help rehabilitate blinded veterans, two teams of three players face off on a court nearly half as long as a basketball court. The object is to throw the ball, embedded with sleigh bells so the players can hear it, across the opponents’ goal line. All players, who have varying degrees of vision loss, must wear dark eyeshades to take away any advantage.

The idea of leveling the goalball field with the eyeshades appeals to Hamilton. That way, no excuses, no falling back on your “disability.” (The quotation marks, by the way, are Hamilton’s.)

That’s the attitude he applies in his career as program manager for California Access News at the Sacramento office of the Society for the Blind. His job is to coordinate sighted volunteers who make audio recordings of newspaper and magazine stories, and read sale coupons from local stores.

When he talks about his larger mission with the organization — to foster independence among visually impaired people — Hamilton speaks with evangelical, even goalball-like fervency.

“I often tell people that 90 per cent of what you do on a daily basis can be done non-visually,” he said. “It makes me laugh how terrified people are of being blind. I’ve met people who’d rather be limbless than blind. He related a story about a low-visioned woman who came to the center and lamented that she could no longer knit — her pastime.

“Anything you don’t understand scares you,” he said of newly blind people he meets. “So we had people work with the woman, teach her to thread the needle like you would with fishing line. And there you go! You’re knitting again. Now make me some socks!”

Matt Hines, a teammate of Hamilton on the Sacramento Earthquake — a club team that plays in regional tournaments — fell under Hamilton’s spell. Hamilton, in fact, recruited the four other members of the Earthquake, which he captains when not travelling with the 2011 U.S. goalball team to international competitions.

“The things that make him a great player are what he uses in his own life — independence, confidence, self-respect,” Hines said. “His ideas about how to live, how to be positive and independent and not be afraid to do things, they translate off the court.”

U.S. team coach Mike Lege said that as the oldest member of the national team, Hamilton has assumed a leadership role but also provides some comic relief. Vince Vaughn would be perfectly cast in a Hamilton biopic.

“Joe can walk into a crowd and take it over,” Lege said. “He’s got that innate self-confidence to him.”

When Hamilton was introduced to the sport in 1988, eight years after it became a Paralympic event, he was a frustrated 10-year-old trying to keep up with his two sighted older brothers in basketball. Exposed to rubella virus while in the womb, he had a corneal transplant as an infant to restore partial vision in his left eye. But a snowboarding accident at age 12 rendered him visionless.

It was frustrating, he said, growing up in a sports-loving Michigan family after he completely lost his sight. He wanted to be just as active as the neighbor kids, and his parents, who encouraged him.

It was time to embrace goalball, which he had first learned two years earlier at a Western Michigan University sports camp.

Smitten with the sport, Hamilton competed on club teams throughout high school and college at Western Michigan, where, he wryly noted, “I got a degree in English, which prepared me for unemployment.”

At 20, in 1998, he was named to his first national team. He has since participated in three world championships and one Paralympics.

Chris Dodds of Logan, Utah, is Hamilton’s closest friend on the U.S. team. He said Hamilton is a defensive specialist but has a deceptively effective throw.

Off the court, Hamilton is renowned for his humour — “most of it not G-rated,” Dodds said.

Hamilton has dabbled in standup comedy, though he says his fatal weakness is that it takes him too long to get to the punch line. Humor helps Hamilton deal with occasional darker moods, his father said.

“You can’t maintain that (positiveness) all the time,” Harold Hamilton said. “He gets angry walking into things that shouldn’t be there, like tree branches or uneven sidewalks. Ain’t nothing he can do. Either accept it or slowly die.”

No need to guess which choice Joe Hamilton has made.