A hereditary condition that blankets much of Andy Jenks’ eyesight hasn’t blurred his vision for the future. The 2016 Paralympic goalball silver medalist sees bright things ahead in both the sport and his career.
A little more than a year after the Americans won silver at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, Jenks and his team will be back in Brazil — this time for the IBSA Goalball Americas Championships. The tournament starts Sunday in Sao Paulo.
Jenks was born in Indiana with incomplete achromatopsia, a non-progressive and hereditary congenital retinal condition characterized by decreased vision, light sensitivity and partial color blindness.
Around the same time he was born, the 101st United States Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which meant Jenks had access to textbooks with enlarged text and new technologies to assist children with disabilities in school.
“I was lucky to grow up in the years I did because of the ADA and IDEA Acts,” Jenks said. “It gave me the opportunity to have the same education path.”
He went on to graduate from Brandywine High School in Wilmington, Delaware, and eventually received a bachelor’s degree in political science from West Chester University in 2013. He’s still continuing his education today, as well as his athletic career, which has been in high gear the last 17 years.
Jenks began his sports career when he played indoor soccer as a youngster, but he couldn’t make the transition to outdoor ball because of trouble with depth perception and the bright sun — the field was much larger and the sun often made it difficult for him to differentiate who was on which team.
When he turned 10, Jenks attended a sports day sponsored by the Delaware Association of Blind Athletes (DABA) at the University of Delaware, where he was first introduced to goalball. That’s when he also met his mentors — John Mulhern (a 2000 Paralympian) and coach Greg Gontaryk.
“The best part of goalball is that you can be the best in the world at something and not be at a disadvantage because of your vision,” Jenks said.
Taking up the sport at a young age led him to club ball and many years of playing the game, which put him at an advantage among his peers. His height and weight also helped him as he was always a big kid. Now 27, he’s a bulky 6-foot-4, 240 pounds.
Jenks made the national team in 2010 and played his first IBSA World Goalball Championships, where Team USA placed fourth. The Americans got redemption in 2014 with a bronze medal, and they won silver at the 2015 Parapan American Games.
In 2016 the Americans beat rival Brazil at the Paralympic Games. Jenks said Brazil and Canada should be the two toughest opponents at next week’s regional championships.
Meanwhile, Jenks has furthered his education with a master’s degree in political science and international relations. Now he’s working on his Ph.D. in political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, hoping to make improvements in politics in reference to people with disabilities.
“I decided to get my Ph.D. because political science didn’t study disability,” Jenks said. “It was typically excluded from their studies, and there was a much-needed gap that needed to be filled.”
He’s working on a dissertation about how disability rights are formed in a comparative context.
“My hope is to help contribute making federal disability rights better both in the U.S. and around the world,” Jenks said. “In the U.S., we have the Americans with Disabilities Act that by far has the most comprehensive national disability anti-discrimination that exists. But the enforcement methods are really weak. If a business is not accessible, going through the justice system can be a difficult process.”
Jenks said that although other nations aren’t as advanced as the United States when it comes to policies on people with disabilities, the U.S. can still do better and shine as a standard for other countries to see.
He also agrees that the Paralympic Games in other countries may not exactly pave the way for such disability studies and policies, but that the Games serve other purposes in aiding the advancement.
“I think they ultimately help bring awareness to issues of access, but they often time can inspire young people with disabilities,” Jenks said. “They can encourage a kid to participate in whatever they can. Part of it is seeing those people do it, especially when the human body is viewed on how much you can produce.”
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 18 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.