When the USA Paralympic team departs for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Sept. 1 to participate in the 2016 Paralympic Games, Portland State will be there. Eliana Mason, a PSU senior majoring in psychology, Jen Armbruster, inclusive rec and fitness coordinator for the Academic and Student Recreation Center, and Asya Miller, four-time paralympian, will all be part of the 2016 Paralympic U.S. Women’s Goalball Team.
For first-time Paralympian Mason, the event marks the achievement of a long-term goal.
“I first heard about goalball at a sports camp at the Washington School for the Blind,” Mason said. “And when I came back to Oregon I told my parents, ‘I want to do this!’ and they were like, ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Then I met Jen [Armbruster] at Portland State.”
Armbruster leads the goalball program at PSU and encouraged Mason to visit one of their practices. The rest is history. Mason chose PSU for its goalball and adaptive programs, joined the university team, and continued to climb in the sport.
“The more I played it, the more I fell in love with it,” Mason said. “After the U.S. team came back from London in 2012, I was like, I want to make the Rio team.”
So Mason put in the work. With Armbruster’s experience and her own determination, Mason made the U.S. team for the 2014 Goalball World Championships in Finland, where she won a gold medal. She continued pushing and training for her long-term goal of the Paralympic Games and earned her spot on the 2016 team.
Mason, who is legally blind, embraces the intensity of work ethic needed to compete at the international level. She also credits the Academic and Student Recreation Center’s progressive approach to adaptive sports for making intense athletic training a reality.
“There is adaptive stuff for everything,” Mason said. “I used to have trouble in the gym because it can be dark. So I asked my trainer if we could get reflective tape on stuff, and go in the gym now. There’s reflective tape! It’s really cool to feel like, when you have an issue it’s heard.”
Alex Accetta, assistant vice president of the Academic and Student Recreation Center, discussed the importance of inclusivity and adaptability to the success of the rec center, and stated he attributes much of the program’s success to Armbruster’s leadership.
“Jen was our first hire,” Accetta said. “She’s one of the best in the country. Our program has been a model for others to follow around the country. She really empowers people.”
Armbruster took on the role of inclusive rec and fitness coordinator for the Academic and Student Recreation Center when it opened six years ago and is credited with playing an instrumental role in the facility’s development of adaptive sports. Yet she remains humble when attributing success to the rec center’s inclusive facilities.
“The staff is really what’s key,” Armbruster said. “The 180 student-employees we have, the almost 20 pro staff—they are committed to making this an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students.”
PSU is one of the top schools in the nation for successfully incorporating adaptive facilities, although genuine inclusivity goes far beyond accessible doorways and universal bathrooms. Armbruster brought the expertise she witnessed in the Birmingham, Alabama program to PSU, made several investments in new equipment, and devised new means of utilizing the equipment. She appreciates the success of PSU’s programs influencing other organizations.
“A lot of schools are now catching up,” Armbruster said. “They are beginning to see the rewards of having your whole student body being able to access the rec center. We want all students to come here and feel welcome, whether that’s the trans population, women, older population. We just want folks to come and enjoy using the rec center and finding community.”
In addition to her work with the Academic and Student Recreation Center, Armbruster, who is also legally blind, is an accomplished athlete who holds herself to high performance expectations. Rio will mark her seventh competition in the Paralympic Games.
Armbruster’s first Paralympic Games experience was in 1992. She has travelled the world—Beijing, London, Germany, among others—for her love of the sport and her belief in the abilities of others. She described the excitement of competing in the games for 26 years.
“You just live in the moment and enjoy it,” Armbruster said. “From stepping into Olympic Stadium, that feeling never gets old. Walking in with your delegation and your country, enjoying everything from the first moment of play. You just contribute everything you can.”
Yet, many people don’t know the sport of goalball or the Paralympic Games.
The Paralympic Games are parallel to the Olympic Games, held every four years, and begin about one month after the Olympics. Paralympic athletes overcome all kinds of disabilities to compete. Many events of the Paralympic Games match traditional Olympic events, but goalball is unique.
Goalball is a sport played on a court similar to a soccer court. The rules of goalball are straightforward: Two teams of three players face off against each other, attempting to roll the game ball into the goal of the opposing team. Everyone plays offense, everyone plays defense, and no one has the use of their eyes.
All goalball players—sighted, unsighted and all points in between—wear eyeshades, which remove all sense of sight. Players must connect sound with proximity and master ear-hand coordination. The game ball has bells in the center that signal its location to the players; therefore, the audience has to remain absolutely silent. Players have to communicate and react purely by sense of sound.
The sport was created in 1946 by two doctors hoping to rehabilitate visually impaired veterans of World War II, according to the official Paralympics website. The sport quickly grew in popularity and joined the ranks of events in the 1976 Toronto Paralympic Games.
Asya Miller trains with the PSU goalball team and lauds the authentic inclusivity of the sport.
“Anybody can play goalball once they put the eyeshades on, which makes the playing field equal,” Miller said. “That’s why the practices here at Portland State are open. Any student can come here and practice, try it. When they put their eyeshades on, they’re just like the rest of us.”
For Miller, Rio will mark her fifth Paralympic Games appearance and a great opportunity for the USA team. Half of the team has been together since the 2000 Sydney games. They are seasoned, salty and ready for action. However, they have their work cut out for them.
The USA Women’s Goalball Team opens the tournament preliminaries against host country Brazil on Sept. 8. They face Algeria Sept. 9 and Japan Sept. 11. Quarterfinals begin Sept. 14. Fans unable to attend the games live can petition NBC to broadcast goalball live via the team’s facebook page.
Armbruster and Miller are veterans of the Paralympic Games and have experienced the rush of entering Olympic Stadium. For Mason, Rio will be the first time. Armbruster offered advice.
“You’ve worked this hard for it, the game’s the same it has always been, it’s still 18 by 9 meters,” Armbruster said. “That doesn’t change, it’s just on a different stage. Just play your game and you’ll be fine. What you’ve done so far has gotten you this far, so just trust in it and enjoy the ride.”