Blind athletes compete at Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — The game was delayed when one of the boys rolled his eyes back. The players were soon ready, however; they lined up three to the side, defending nets that stretched across the width of the pitch.

“It’s going to be fun,” said Jackson Himmelberger, a 14-year-old from Berks County. He’s a wrestler, a nervous 87-pounder, but for the day he had switched to goalball, a Paralympic sport originally developed for veterans who were blinded during World War II.

Himmelberger has been blind since birth. To make the game fair — a primary goal of the Envision Blind Sports summer camp, which brought more than 60 visually impaired junior athletes to Penn State Behrend this month — any player with any degree of sight wore goggles. skiing with blackened glasses.

Professional teams go even further: in June, during the world championships in Hangzhou, China, players wore adhesive eye patches under their glasses.

The referee called for silence. There were bells in the ball, which players throw with a bowling motion. The defenders listened to the bells then dove towards the sound, sideways, arms stretched overhead, top leg slightly raised in case the ball bounced. They tried to block the ball with their bodies before it rolled into the net.

“Silence, please,” repeated the referee. But there were two other fields, and both were used for other sports. There were blind children testing their balance on longboards, or wrestling or practicing judo throws. Outside on the grass field, they learned lacrosse by throwing a ball that whizzed through the air.

Luke Snyder was in the pool. He is 14 years old and swims for his school in Bloomsburg.

“I’m big on swimming,” he said. “I’m comfortable in the water. I like the way it feels.

The Envision camp is open to visually impaired young people aged 5 to 18. He introduces them to sports they haven’t tried, such as archery, rock climbing and horseback riding. Other events are modified to ensure athlete safety. In the pool, for example, instructors tap swimmers on the shoulders with a foam pool noodle to signal that they are close to the wall.

“We want them to have the opportunity to be active,” said Jillian Stringfellow, the camp director. “Then when they’re ready, they can push themselves to their limit.”

This year’s group spent a week at Penn State Behrend, traveling from 10 states, including Colorado and Hawaii. They played soccer and floor hockey and threw foam-tipped javelins. They bounced around in a trampoline park and navigated a ropes course in the trees.

“Some of these kids have been ostracized their entire lives,” said Wendy Fagan, an adaptive physical activity program teacher at Slippery Rock University. She founded Envision Blind Sports in 2007. In addition to summer camp, she hosts day clinics and competitions. In winter, its athletes ski; in the summer, they paddleboard and play golf.

At Behrend’s camp, between games, they sat in small groups, talking, laughing and discussing strategy for their favorite computer games.

“Every day at school, these kids feel different,” Fagan said. “They know people are watching them. Here, they are with children who look like them and they become friends for life.

On the court, however, the competition was often intense.

“They learn that they can play sports that they thought might be off limits to them,” Fagan said. “It creates a lot of confidence.

“We also give them the opportunity to just be kids – to run, play and be part of a team,” she said. “It’s fundamental to the development of any child. It influences so much how we move through the world.”

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