Silver-medalist Joe Hamilton and the American goalball team will compete at the IBSA Goalball & Judo International Qualifier in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“Mr. Goalball” may not be an official title, but the fact is Joe Hamilton sleeps, eats and breathes goalball.
"I’ve spent my entire life as a low-vision/totally blind individual as a sports fan — football, basketball, baseball, team sports,” said the 40-year-old, who was raised near Detroit. “Grew up as a Tigers, Lions and Pistons fan. For me, (goalball has) given me an opportunity to be a lifelong athlete. The dream I would have had had I been fully able-bodied, fully sighted, I would have pursued basketball or football or baseball, whichever one I demonstrated the most acumen in.”
Being a sports fan is really the key to his passion. As an infant, Hamilton had to undergo a cornea transplant after being exposed to rubella in the womb, which left him with limited eyesight as a child. He then fully lost his sight at the age of 12 due to a snowboarding accident, which left him searching for his athletic niche.
Hamilton was introduced to goalball when he was 10 and his love for the sport grew quickly and has led him to appear in the 2000 and 2016 Paralympic Games, winning a silver medal with Team USA in the latter.
“Throughout my middle school and high school years, it was my greatest social opportunity,” he said. “I got to make a lot of friends, not only in the state of Michigan but around the country, I got to play a team sport, which I loved the most, and I was pretty good at it.”
Now, he has found that passion and friendship in goalball, which he feels has made him a better person.
“One of the things that makes this work as a program is that ability to be around those people who understand what you’re going through and who face similar obstacles that you face,” Hamilton said. “Goalball is extremely important to me because it’s a sport, it’s challenging and it gives me an opportunity to be around other blind and low-vision athletes and people who understand my day-in and day-out struggle, frustration, achievement and it’s very comfortable within my peer group, my community.”
Goalball is unique among sports for the blind and visually impaired in that all of the athletes play without the use of any sight. All three players on both teams traverse the volleyball-size court while wearing eyeshades. The ball, slightly larger than a basketball, has two bells on the inside so players can hear where and how fast it is going as they defend the net, which spans the width of the court and is 1.3 meters high (about 51 inches). The game was created as a rehab exercise for World War II veterans.
Next up for Hamilton is trying to help the U.S. earn a spot at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. With four of 10 Paralympic spots already filled, the Americans can clinch a trip to Tokyo with a top-two finish at the IBSA Goalball & Judo International Qualifier in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Finishing third or fourth would keep the U.S. in the running for Tokyo.
The U.S. went down to Brazil in May to train as a warmup for this important qualifier. Hamilton said the trip was well worth it. He rates Brazil and Lithuania as the top U.S. rivals. Lithuania beat Hamilton and the U.S. for Paralympic gold in Rio in 2016.
“That was hugely beneficial to us,” Hamilton said. “Brazil is probably the best goalball team in the world on a game-in, game-out basis, so to hold our skills and measure up to them for a week was not only enlightening but also very helpful from a physical standpoint for this tournament.”
Five of the six players who represented the U.S. in Rio are back on the roster, although two had left the team prior to last year’s worlds. Hosting an international competition in the city that serves as the national training center for goalball as well as the uplifting trip to Brazil has the U.S. in a good mindset. Hamilton was one of the original members of the resident team – established in 2015 - at the Turnstone Center.
“It gives us some confidence, some swagger going in. We have a really strong group of six players for this particular event.”