Paralympics for Ripley, believe it or not
When Doug Ripley strides into London’s Copper Box arena with his teammates on Canada’s national goalball team, he won’t be able to make out individual faces in the crowd of 5,000 spectators. But he will feel their energy.
“I look forward to getting that rush,” says Ripley, a New Westminster massage therapist who has juvenile macular degeneration that means he’s unable to make out details in his central vision.
Ripley left Thursday to compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games.
He’s come a long way since 2003, when he and a buddy booked a gym in Vancouver and invited their friends for casual pick-up games of the team sport designed for blind athletes.
Ripley had never let his own visual impairment slow his athletic pursuits. He played road hockey as a kid, rugby when he was in high school and he competed internationally in track and field. The first time he played goalball, he was hooked.
“It’s an amazing sport,” says Ripley, 38. “It’s very high paced, very energetic.”
Played on a court the size of an indoor volleyball court, goalball pits teams of three who are stationed at each end to roll a heavy rubber ball into the nine-metre wide net. It’s not as easy as it sounds, says Ripley.
As all the players wear opaque eyeshades to ensure they’re equally blind, players have to listen for the bells contained within the ball to be able to slide across the court to prevent it from going into their own net, and their own mental map of the court to fire shots of up to 60 km/h into the opposition’s net.
“You’ve got to be fearless,” says Ripley. “You’ve got to want the ball more than you’re afraid of it, and you have to be aware of where you want to put the ball.”
Men’s goalball has been part of the Paralympics since the 1976 Games in Toronto. The women started competing at the 1984 Games in New York.
Canada qualified for this year’s Paralympics by finishing third at an international tournament in Turkey. Ripley and his teammates will be seeded in Pool B, against Iran, South Korea, Algeria, Belgium and powerhouse China. The tournament, which is being played in the same venue that hosted the Olympic handball competition, starts Aug. 30 and the gold medal match will be played Sept. 9.
To prepare, the Canadian team played in four international tournaments in Europe and participated in two training camps. Ripley also practices twice a week and works out in the gym four times a week.
“It’s very physical,” says Ripley. “You’ve got to have agility and awareness.”