The same can be said for athletes with physical disabilities who dream of medaling in the Paralympics.
Former Whitefield Academy wrestler Matt Simpson is in the process of living out that dream. Born blind, Simpson discovered the sport of goalball entering his teenage years, and he was immediately hooked.
“I started playing when I was about 10 or 11 years old,” Simpson said. “I tried it at a sports camp and fell in love with it and the opportunity it provided. People have a lot of different sports they can get involved with, but the visually impaired miss out on things. Goalball was something I could play an active role in.
“My sister, Lindsay, played soccer, and I always admired her and wanted to get involved, too. I fell in love with goalball and wanted to represent the United States in the Paralympics.”
Now, Simpson will get his wish.
After years of training, Simpson joined Team USA and helped his team win a bronze medal at June’s International Blind Sports Federation Goalball World Championships in Finland. That third-place finish guaranteed Team USA a spot at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“Going to Finland and winning the bronze was a big outcome for us,” said Simpson, who graduated Whitefield in 2008 and later earned a degree from Washington and Lee University in Virginia. “Now, we’re training for Rio for the next two years. It will be a dream come true when we go.”
According to the U.S. Paralympics website, goalball was introduced as a medal event at the 1976 Paralympics in Toronto, and the sport is currently played in 112 countries.
Played only by the blind, teams compete in groups of three, with players guarding a goal using their bodies, like soccer or hockey. The ball makes noise when it’s in motion, so players can locate it audibly.
Goalball is played on a court with tactile markings, so players can determine their location and which direction they’re facing. Players take turns throwing the ball, end to end, in an attempt to score at one another’s goal.
“When I first started playing, I wasn’t that good,” Simpson said. “But I had a goal of making the Paralympics, so I got in the weight room to get stronger and worked on the court to be physically better and improve my skills.”
Matt’s father, Hal, played a key role in his son’s development.
When Matt came to Hal to discuss how much fun he had playing goalball at camp, and his desire to play in the Paralympics, Hal did everything he could to support his son.
“He was pretty focused,” Hal Simpson said, “so I did my research, looking into the sport and the different associations and federations involved with it.
“I worked with youth when I started about 12 years ago, and we formed a team. I took Matt to tournaments, and later national camps, and as he got older, he wanted to play at a higher level.”
Matt Simpson played for an under-19 national team that won the world championships in 2009, further fueling his passion, and he started receiving invitations to national team tryouts. He dedicated himself to the sport after graduating college, hoping to play at the 2012 Paralympics in London, however the U.S. failed to qualify.
Undaunted, Simpson will get his chance in two years from now in Rio.
“This kid set his sights on this level and he belongs there,” Simpson’s father said. “He’s reached his ultimate goal, and it’s brought back memories of the old days, watching him mature and grow into the sport. I have a lot of pride watching him play.”
Hal Simpson’s research into goalball led to other outlets for the visually impaired because, as Matt got older, Hal discovered other sports for adults.
In 2011, with help from the Center for the Visually Impaired and the city of Atlanta, and funding from the Falcons Foundation, Hal Simpson founded the Georgia Blind Sports Association. According to its website, the GBSA is a non-profit that serves as an advocate for visually impaired athletes in Georgia.
Other sports offered through the GBSA include beep baseball and beep kickball.
“(Visually impaired people) have the same wish to be athletically involved,” Hal Simpson said. “As we move forward and more people come to us, we’ll add more sports. We’re growing as an organization and we want people to know what we do.
“We even have beep baseball teams in Albany, Athens and Atlanta. Not every team is affiliated with the GBSA, but our goal is to get into communities in Georgia and build new teams.”
While Hal Simpson continues to build the GBSA, his son is building his body and goalball skills at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“I would never have reached this level of success without that influence from my dad and what he did to make all this happen,” Matt Simpson said. “He started a team and a program for me. I went to college and he made the program even bigger and better, and made opportunities for others as well. His passion has been awesome, and he’s impacted the lives of others, too.”