The players wear eye patches. At either end of a nearly silent indoor basketball court in Seattle, they crouch on hands and knees like people crawling around in the dark — which in a real sense, they are.
From one side, Telea Noriega — blind since birth — takes a rubber ball and whips it, bowling-ball-style, toward the other team as the opponents wait, momentarily still and all ears. In the quiet of the gym, the sleighlike jingling of the bell-embedded ball telegraphs its path and speed for those who have learned to listen well.
Goalball is one of 22 sports played at the international Paralympic Games and the premiere team game for blind athletes, the only one created specifically for them.
Now, with a regular practice space at Franklin High School, some local enthusiasts want to give Seattle its first goalball team in 30 years, hoping to raise physical activity among a group with few such opportunities and to instill the life skills that sports can promote.
"For blind and visually impaired people, sports are so much more," said Billy Henry, of the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes. "They have the confidence to go out and find work. It's a real self-esteem builder."
Originally designed in Austria for World War II vets who'd lost their vision, goalball is like soccer, though players stay on their side of the court. "They can throw curves, change-ups and spins," said Mark Lucas, executive director of the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). "There's all kinds of strategy, offensively and defensively."
It's a tactile, auditory sport rather than one based on hand-eye coordination. Each team consists of three players, each positioned within individual boundaries lined with tape. Eye patches level the field, making players totally sightless if they weren't already.
The object is to get the ball past the other team while keeping it inbounds.
Through its jingling bell, defenders must quickly gauge a ball's course and then lean over to catch it or splay themselves lengthwise to block it.
At the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, the U.S. men's goalball team came in fourth and the women's team edged out China 6-5 to win a gold in front of 16,000 spectators.
"It was one of the coolest things ever in my 17 years with USABA," Lucas said.
He estimates about 40 men's and women's goalball teams throughout the United States, with another dozen or so youth squads. "There's a pipeline of athletes coming up," he said. "We're looking beyond the 2012 Paralympics in London. We're looking toward Rio. We are building an infrastructure so that we are on the medal stand there."
Seattle's Noriega, a 43-year-old Samoa native who grew up in his adoptive family in Oregon, is an accomplished athlete who wrestled and played football from fifth grade into high school. An off-and-on goalball player since 1983, he has a strong upper body, a wicked serve and an uncanny sense for the ball, relentless in its pursuit, crawling in high gear.
"I'm gonna have to go get some elbow pads," he said. "That's my style, is to go after that ball."