Many athletes train for their sport so intensely and thoroughly that they could theoretically go through certain motions of the game with their eyes closed. When Andy Jenks enters the arena, however, a total lack of vision is required.
Jenks, a native Delawarean who turns 26 this week, was one of six U.S. men selected to play on the USA Men’s Goalball Team at the 2016 Paralympics, an international competition among athletes with disabilities that occurs three weeks after the Olympics. Because goalball players have varying degrees of visual impairment (the game was invented after World War II for blinded veterans), they all wear full blindfolds to even the playing field. The ball that they thrust toward their competitors’ net contains bells to help them judge its position and velocity.
The team is bringing home a silver medal after beating Brazil (10–1) in Thursday’s semifinals but losing to Lithuania (14–8) in Friday’s finals.
The goalball players’ eligibility to compete is determined by Paralympic classifications spanning three levels of visual impairment: B1, B2 and B3. Jenks falls into the B3 classification, the “most sighted” class; he is legally blind, but can see well enough to use the large-sized font on his iPhoneâ€‹.
When he steps onto the court and slips on his blindfold, Jenks has to immediately rely on his body’s other senses and mechanisms.
“You pick up on cues and then you act,” he says. “Your body has some reactions that you’ve trained into it—similar to the way a sprinter hears a gun and starts running.”
Jenks initially adjusts his body to prepare for the ball coming toward him, then makes sudden moves based on where and how he intuits the ball—jingling as it whips and bounces across the court—has been thrown. Through repetition, these motions become a “second-nature, instinctual thing,” he says.
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Jenks first encountered goalball back in 2000 during a sports day for visually impaired individuals, hosted by the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) at the University of Delaware’s Bob Carpenter Center. He’s been playing at youth and adult levels ever since. When the USABA held its Goalball National Championships at the Bob Carpenter Center in 2010, Jenks competed and won on the same floor where he’d discovered the sport a decade earlier. “It’s come full circle,” he says.
When Jenks returns from Brazil, it will be yet again to the UD campus, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in political science and international relations. He pulls “double duty” during the school year, training and often traveling to tournaments (located anywhere from Michigan to Montreal) when he’s not studying and teaching. Though his free time is limited, he mentions Kelly’s Logan House, Home Grown Cafe and Deer Park Tavern when asked about his favorite local haunts.
Jenks expresses concern that the media tends to limit much of its Paralympics coverage to “feel-good stories,” despite the fact that athletes of the “highest level” are competing in one of the largest-scale sporting events in the world. There’s been “a lot of pushback,” he says, from many Paralympians who feel that they are unfairly reduced to simplistic or stereotypical stories emphasizing “inspiration” because of their disabilities.
On the other hand, he says, inspiration is a major component of all sports; by nature, athletes’ accomplishments make people proud and excited to rally behind them.
“We as Paralympians need to remember that we do make people feel that way—and embrace it,” he says, adding that better coverage and awareness of the Paralympic movement is in fact increasing. “[…] I’m excited to be here representing not just my team and family and America, but also my state.”