Sunday, October 29, 2006

Teenager involved in sports is going blind

If Vaughn Beck weren’t going blind, he’d probably be just like any other 16-year-old high school kid in love with sports.

Beck suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. But Beck is a competitive athlete in a nationwide sport — when he’s not skateboarding, riding his bike or wrestling.

Beck’s game of choice is goalball, a game for the blind and visually impaired. Goalball is a bit like dodgeball, only the point is to block the ball, thus preventing the other team from scoring, rather than to get out of the way.

Two teams of three blindfolded players face each other on a volleyball-sized court. Everyone is blindfolded because some people may have some degree of sight. A player rolls a weighted ball toward the opposing team. Bells jingle inside the ball, so players can hear it coming. The object is to roll the ball past the other team and into a net to score points. The defending team, waiting, crouched and ready, listens for the ball as it rolls toward them, then tries to block it using arms, legs or body.

At high levels of play, the ball is rolled up to 35 mph and defenders make diving blocks like a soccer goalie saving a penalty kick.

Beck, who attends Wasilla High, is attempting to play at such a level. In July, he traveled to Michigan to play in a goalball state tournament. He competed there because Alaska has no goalball team. Beck’s team won the age 15-17 championship, qualifying for the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes’ Youth National Goalball Championships. The tournament is scheduled for Friday and Saturday at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, Fla.

Beck’s ultimate goal is to someday play in the International Blind Sports Association World Goalball Championships.

One day after school last week, Beck and a number of students played goalball in the Wasilla High commons area. With no Alaska team, Beck needed some practice. He watched as students, many of whom were his friends, pulled on padded hockey pants and wrapped heavy blue blindfolds around their eyes. Rope was taped to the floor to mark off the court and to help players feel where they were to orient themselves. Using a fast bowling motion, players rolled the heavy rubber ball, trying to get it past the opposing team. Players dove to block it. To pass the ball to a teammate, the person with the ball would call out a teammate’s name and that teammate would slap the floor. The person holding the ball would then turn toward the sound and gently roll the ball to his or her teammate.

“I hate not being able to see,” said one student after he rolled the ball out of bounds.

“It’s hard, isn’t it?” said Jacinda Danner, a teacher for the blind and visually impaired with the Mat-Su School District.

Another student said goalball was “fun, but scary” because it was difficult to judge the ball’s speed. Players often dove too late as the ball rolled underneath. Or they dove and the ball struck them unexpectedly.

Danner taught players to dive with hands outstretched and arms covering the face, to prevent injury.

Danner wore a hooded sweatshirt with the slogan “A loss of sight, never a loss of vision” in white lettering on the back.

Danner helped Beck get involved in goalball.

She runs a yearly camp where sports like goalball are introduced to impaired athletes.

Danner saw Beck’s ability at the game — he wings the ball with force and is quick to dive — and connected him with a professor she knew at Western Michigan University who was involved with goalball there. Through the professor, Beck was able to join a team at the Michigan tournament, and was later selected for the Michigan state team that will compete in the goalball nationals.
It took some convincing to get Beck to come out for the camp. “I thought he’d be too cool,” she said.

Beck was still coming to terms with his condition. He still has some sight. A thick dark ring, like a doughnut, covers his vision.

Beck sat on a bench and looked at Danner standing about 3 feet away. He said he could see only her nose. At the far periphery, he could see a reporter sitting next to him on one side and his mother Nicole on the other.

The ring of darkness is slowly expanding, he said, and filling in.
Nicole Beck said a gym teacher first noticed Beck’s vision trouble and suggested he get his eyes checked.

“It’s something he’s adapting to,” she said. “He’s still breaking canes all the time.”

Beck decided to attend the camp when he realized he could no longer play the sports he loved — basketball, football, soccer.

“It was getting dangerous,” he said. “It was becoming a safety issue.”

Beck wrestled for the Wasilla High team last year but found it frustrating because he could not see when his opponent was about to shoot in on him for a takedown. Coaches taught him to keep his hands low to feel when opponents were about to shoot, but he still found himself at a disadvantage. He doesn’t plan to wrestle this year.

Reluctantly, Beck attended the camp two years ago. “I was afraid they would not be the type of kids I hang out with,” Beck said. “I was afraid they wouldn’t be very athletic. I was scared they wouldn’t be very active — the kind of kids who didn’t get out and do anything.”

He found the opposite. He also learned something. Beck, who loves activity — he still rides his bike, skateboards with a cane at the Wasilla skate park and says he wants to learn to snowboard — discovered he could still be himself.

“(The camp) helped me to look at it a little different,” he said. “It helped me to accept it.”

Nicole Beck said Vaughn trains for his sport — lots of sit-ups and push-ups — just as he would for basketball, football or soccer.

“He may be visually impaired, but it hasn’t stopped him from doing what other people do,” she said.


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