Jane Hawes

"Emily, where are you?"

Eleven-year-old Jason, a student at the Ohio State School for the Blind (OSSB), had just taken his position on the center goal line of the school's gymnasium floor. He had donned blackout goggles and was resting on his hands and knees.

Emily, also 11 and attired similarly, was situated a few feet to Jason's left. She slapped her hands twice on the floor. Jason nodded and said, "OK, good."

The Pee Wee OSSB Goalball team practice soon began.

"All quiet," called out their gym teacher and coach Alison Brewer.

"And play," she said.

A group of six students launched into the game: Three players to a side faced each other from opposite ends of the gym-sized square court. The action started when one player rolls the "goalball" toward the other trio, who would have to keep the ball from getting past them - not unlike soccer, but that's where the similarities end. Soccer players don't wear blackout goggles and thrive on total silence.

Goalball is a relatively young sport, first created in 1946 in order to help rehabilitate military veterans whose vision had become impaired during World War II. The ball used has jingling bells embedded inside it, so the players can hear it as it rolls across the playing court. They block the ball by stretching out their bodies along the court.

Brewer said the sport has multiple benefits for her students.

"It's huge for orientation and mobility, keeping track of where you are and where your teammates are," she said, adding, "It's great for self-esteem and building community."

Another unique aspect of the game, Brewer said, is that "they don't have to have someone assisting them to play the game."

Over time the game has evolved to welcome players who are not 100 percent visually impaired, hence the blackout goggles that are now worn.

At OSSB, the Pee Wee team is composed of the elementary-grade students. They spend the month of February and a few weeks into March immersing themselves in learning the sport, along with swimming, wrestling and cheerleading, so they can compete against other Midwestern schools for the blind in mid-March.

The varsity team competes in the fall and Brewer assists head coach Dan Kelley with that team.

"Our high school boys won conference this year," Brewer said. "It's a very fast, powerful game with them."

While the Pee Wee players are still learning the sport and do approach the rolling and blocking cautiously, the varsity players, said Brewer, "are rolling that ball very fast and hard at that level. It does help you with reaction time."

At the international and Paralympian level, rolling speeds of up to 60 kilometers per hour (or about 36 miles per hour) are not unknown. Goalball became a part of the Paralympics in 1976.

But it's not just a power sport, Brewer said: Players have been known to master a slow rolling technique that "negates the sound of the bells. There is a lot of nuance to how to roll it."

The relative silence of a game is another unusual aspect to the sport. While played, the only sound beside the jingling of the ball is the official issuing orders to start and stop play and asking defenders if they're ready. And the players take the quiet seriously.

"We've been to gyms where air conditioning kicks on," Brewer said, "and players get very upset."

But ultimately the game serves to help athletes get fit and to connect with each other.

"Our students absolutely love it," Brewer said. "It's the only sport for the blind, made by the blind."

For more information about goalball and playing opportunities outside of primary and secondary schools, you can visit http://usaba.org/index.php/sports/#Goalball. The Ohio Association of Blind Athletes also can be reached on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ohiogoalball.