They are the Belles of the ball in a little-known sport about a ball with bells. And the Australian women’s goalball team are readying for a historic night out in Tokyo.
The 2020 Games is the first time this side have reached the quarter-finals of a Paralympics. The last time they even won a match was at Atlanta 1996 – a 2-0 result against Korea, before finishing last in the competition.
The Belles’ record for the next four Games reads eighth place (Sydney 200), did not qualify (Athens 2004), did not qualify (Beijing 2008), ninth place (London 2012), last-minute invite after Russia’s disqualification, ninth place (Rio 2016).
But the past five years under coach Peter Corr have seen an uptick in results in a compelling sport created solely for the vision-impaired. The aim of the game is to roll the ball into the opponents’ goal as opposing players attempt to block it with their bodies. Bells inside the ball help orientate the three players for each team on an indoor court resembling those used for volleyball. Because the athletes rely on sound, all spectators must be silent during play.
In 2018 Australia advanced to the quarter-finals at the world championships, at which point they lost to Brazil. Their final ranking of eighth was their equal-best result in four world championship appearances since 2006.
The slow and steady improvement culminated in Saturday’s 4-3 victory over Canada at the Makuhari Messe Hall, a win 25 years in the making. It came days after an 11-1 defeat to Israel and 6-0 loss to China and was, as Corr put it, “historic”. It was an emotional night for the Belles, comprised of Sydney teacher Jenny Blow, Tyan Taylor, Amy Ridley, Raissa Martin, Meica Horsburgh and Brodie Smith, and who have been competing wearing Indigenous-design eye shades.
“We’ve been working hard to set a platform for a small women’s sport with not much of a following and I think they did themselves absolutely proud,” Corr said. “This is about celebrating the Belles and celebrating the fact that, with teams, it takes time to succeed and build a program and believe that you can win at this level.
“I want to teach these girls to celebrate how good they are – and they’ve had very few chances to celebrate. One of them was to qualify for here. Two was to get here and to do the job they did to prepare well, and three is this. We’ll definitely celebrate this.”
Celebrate they did, to the tune of another win, this time 4-1 against reigning world champions the Russian Paralympic Committee on Sunday. Monday was a watch and wait, and China’s 4-2 defeat of Canada ensure Australia’s passage to the final eight.
The path gets exponentially more difficult from here, for on Wednesday at 1.15pm local time (2pm AEST) they face defending champions Turkey for a spot in the semi-finals. Turkey will be up for the task, too, smarting from Monday night’s final group-stage loss to the USA. The 4-3 upset was their first defeat in Tokyo.
“These girls grew up as sportswomen today,” Corr said after the Russia game. “They had to win it and they found a way. Probably no one in the world believed we would win that game today against the world champions.
“There will be more people who know about goalball as a result of what we’ve done and, if that brings on another generation, that would be great.”
Goalball by the numbers at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics
3 – substitute players each team can have. A team can make a maximum of four substitutions during a match, and a player can be substituted more than once
4 – medals won by American Jen Armbruster, the most decorated goalball player in Paralympic Games history. She was a member of USA women’s teams that won bronze at Atlanta 1996, silver at Athens 2004, gold at Beijing 2008, and bronze at Rio 2016
6 – players on the court at one time; three per team
9 – width of the goals in metres
10 – the match is ended if either team leads by this margin
11 – men’s and women’s medals won by United States at the Paralympic Games out of a possible 60, making them the most successful NPC in this sport
20 – teams taking part at Tokyo 2020: 10 in the women’s competition and 10 in the men’s
24 – duration of a game of goalball in minutes, split into two 12-minute halves with a three-minute break between them
45 – age of Lithuanian Genrik Pavliukianec, who is contesting his sixth Games. He announced his retirement from the sport after helping Lithuania win gold at Rio 2016 but is back to help defend their men’s title
1976 – year goalball first appeared at the Paralympics, in Toronto. Only men’s teams competed at that time, with Austria winning gold. USA took gold when women’s goalball made its Games debut in 1984.