Matt Simpson dives in a Goalball match at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Each Tuesday leading up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, which will be held in the summer of 2021, TeamUSA.org will introduce you to an athlete you should know prior to Tokyo – as part of the “Tokyo Tuesday” series. There’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Follow along on social media with the hashtag #TokyoTuesday.
Paralympic goalball silver medalist Matt Simpson always loved history, and his undergraduate study of political science seemed a way to apply that knowledge and make an impact in the world.
In the back of his mind, however, he always wanted to go into law.
“It just seems like the best use of my interests and skills, and certainly a way to channel my competitive instincts and the things that we put to such good use as Olympic and Paralympic athletes as far as the preparation and that sort of thing,” said Simpson, 30, of Alexandria, Virginia. “And obviously we like to win as Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and as lawyers we certainly prefer to win.”
Simpson is now both a Paralympic athlete and a lawyer, having graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law this past spring. The global COVID-19 pandemic threw most of his big plans for this year into disarray — there unfortunately was no graduation ceremony and, of course, no Paralympic Games — but there was at least some small personal upside in the midst of so much upheaval.
“I was very worried in the spring, even before COVID, because I was supposed to take the bar exam on July 30 and then I think I would have had to leave for Tokyo around Aug. 16,” he said. “So I was going to have to cram in probably 500 hours of study to take the bar and somehow try to figure out how to travel with the team all over the world and train and I was like, ‘How is this going to work?’ The small silver lining is that I didn’t have to figure that out.”
Simpson was born with a congenital retina disease and has been blind since childhood. He discovered goalball — a team sport in which visually impaired athletes attempt to throw a ball embedded with bells into their opponents’ net — at a U.S. Association of Blind Athletes Sports Education Camp in 1999. He loved it right away, he said, having always preferred team sports to solo endeavors such as running or swimming. Simpson knew he wanted to be a Paralympic athlete, even though as he moved through the ranks, he was always one of the smallest guys on the team.
Having to decide how he was going to achieve his goal and turn his weaknesses into strengths helped him not just athletically but also in life, he said.
“That experience of not being the most gifted right out of the dock and having the doors opened and people saying, ‘You’re really good at this,’ I very much had to prove people wrong and prove to myself that I could do it,” he said. “That experience has been incredibly valuable, not just in sports, but also in talking to people about disability I say that going through that taught me that there are certain things we can change and certain things we can’t.”
Simpson was part of the national team that failed to qualify for the Paralympic Games London 2012 as well as the team that made up for it with a medal-winning performance in Rio in 2016. Not only did they beat hosts Brazil, 10-1, in the semifinal game — “Ten thousand Brazilians were there and so excited to see their team not only go to the gold-medal game but also beat the U.S.,” he said — but also won silver for the country’s first medal in the sport since 2004.
“All those experiences taught me to focus on what you can change and fix and improve, and everything else doesn’t matter,” he said. “You can’t change it, so don’t worry about it. Taking that to my legal education and legal career, I think all those experiences as far as setting goals and having to believe in your goals and having to work single-mindedly toward the outcome you believe in has been a really valuable lesson.”
Simpson took two years off from training with the national team to focus on law school but came back in 2019 to compete in the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru, where they won the silver medal and qualified for Tokyo.
Simpson’s spot on the 2021 Paralympic team isn’t a lock because the roster hasn’t yet been announced. He plans to attend a training camp in December, he said, but the international games scheduled for the beginning of the year have been canceled in the wake of the latest surge of COVID infections.
Life has also changed significantly for Simpson in the past few months.
After passing the bar this summer, he’s now doing a fellowship with the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and will start his career as a litigator with a law firm in January. He and his wife, Tricia, who were married in 2019, are also expecting their first child.
Still, he’d welcome the chance to go to Tokyo.
“It would definitely be very nice to go and have one more Paralympic experience that didn’t end in defeat,” he said. “When you get so close you definitely feel like there’s something different you could have done. If Tokyo is in the cards for me it would be incredibly unexpected, I think, if I looked back at the last three or four years, knowing the turns life takes and school and career and getting to do the things I set my mind to off the court. I would be incredibly grateful for another chance to do it, and this time going as a father and a husband is also something I wouldn’t have expected to be the case. To put all that together would be very cool.”