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Goalball Exchange Trip Brings United States And Russia Together

By Doug Williams | May 26, 2015, 1:22 p.m. (ET)

USABA Exchange Group pictured with host organization, Perspektiva, staff Olga and Valery.

USABA Coaches and Athletes after Opening Ceremony at the International Goalball Tournament.

Most of the kids didn’t speak English, the visiting Americans didn’t understand Russian and goalball, too, was like a foreign language to some in the audiences. Yet on a recent visit to Moscow by five U.S. goalball athletes, four coaches and a team leader, there seemed to be few communication problems.

It was goalball diplomacy on a grassroots level. The Americans were visiting as part of a sports exchange program between the United States and Russia put together by the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes, the U.S. embassy in Moscow and the Department of State’s division of Sports Diplomacy, SportsUnited.

The U.S. goalball group visited schools, gave clinics and demonstrations and played games as part of a broad program to promote connections between U.S. and Russian youth, demonstrate inclusion and diversity, and increase awareness in Paralympic sports such as goalball.

“It was cool,” said Wyatt Hildebrecht, a 17-year-old goalball player from Ohio, who worked with both sighted and visually impaired students during the clinics. “They took to it real fast. They really enjoyed it. … A lot of them even came up and asked for autographs afterward, so it was neat that they got into it so fast and enjoyed the sport so much.”

The U.S. delegation spent a couple of days in Washington, D.C., for orientation at the State Department before visiting Moscow. Once there, two organizations — Project Harmony International and Perspektiva — served as hosts and interpreters, taking the Americans to schools to demonstrate the sport.

Athletes ranged in experience from Hildebrecht, who’s in his third year of playing goalball and hopes someday to compete for the U.S. national team, to Asya Miller, one of the most accomplished women in the national program. Miller, who lives in Portland, Oregon, is a four-time Paralympian who has helped the United States win gold and silver medals.

Miller said the underlying theme of the trip was that “sport transcends politics,” and she relished the connections she and her fellow Americans were able to make with the kids at the clinics.

Exchange Group at Red Square in front of the cathedral with Perspektiva Program Manager, Olga.

The majority of their visits were to schools where the children were sighted. Goalball is a sport for visually impaired athletes. It’s an indoor game played on a court, using a ball with a bell inside. Players try to roll the ball across the court into an opponents’ goal, while their opponents try to block it. All players wear blackout masks over their eyes to ensure that those with partial vision don’t have an advantage.

During the clinics, the Americans would demonstrate the game, their techniques and skills, and also get kids out on the floor to try the game themselves in informal games.

“For the most part they were all excited to try it,” Miller said. “Some were scared at first, some of the younger kids. All the kids volunteered. They wanted to get on the court and try it. A lot of the gym teachers, some of the them decided to play, too.”

Miller said some of the schools had been introduced to goalball through the Russian organization Perspektiva, which promotes Paralympic sports, but not all. She said when the Americans visited the Boarding School for Blind Children in Moscow, the students were familiar with the game and have teams and some very good players.

Miller said the students at the school were especially excited to host the Americans.

“They really wanted us to see everything in their school,” she said. “They were interested in showing us all the different kind of classrooms, and it was very impressive.”

She also said the goalball clinic there was memorable, because so many of the students wanted to play games with the Americans. They put together mixed teams of Russians and Americans.

“It’s a little hard at times when you don’t speak the language, as far as passing the ball and all that, but we actually got to play with them and that was a lot of fun,” she said.

The U.S. Association of Blind Athletes brought equipment on the trip — goalballs and eye shades — to use during the clinics, and donated it to the schools visited.

Asya Miller and Alex Williams instruct throwing technique at a coaches workshop held at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

The Americans also took part in a small tournament in Moscow put on by Perspektiva that included teams from Belarus and Russia. The U.S. women took first and the men took second.

For Hildebrecht, getting the chance to play with and against accomplished national team athletes — while also experiencing international travel and a different culture — was a highlight. From his perspective, the trip was a success, because of the connections made between the Americans and Russians.

“They were telling us they wanted us to come back all the time, that they love having us there,” he said. “And we were telling them they need to come over to the U.S., play goalball with them and show them a little bit more.”

Miller has traveled the world playing goalball, but this was her first trip to Russia. She loved the architecture in Moscow, the hospitality they were shown and the chance to share goalball with new audiences.

She’ll also remember being treated like a superstar.

“This is the first time that anyone’s asked me to take a selfie with them,” she recalled, laughing. “I guess that’s like the new trend, is to take selfies with people.” She also was asked to provide a digital autograph on someone’s phone.

“That was the first time I’d ever done that,” she said. “That was kind of neat.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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