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Bell of the Ball : Goal Ball Championships Give Blind Athletes Their Day on the Court


Richard Montano is one athlete who hates it when spectators cheer his shots.

That's because he plays blindfolded--and he can't hear the jingling of tiny bells inside the ball he's trying to zip past his opponents if the bleachers are noisy.

The 25-year-old West Covina college student is a star of goal ball, a rugged game that is played for fun by the blind.

Today he is among 10 Los Angeles players helping represent California at the national goal ball championships in Colorado Springs, Colo. About half the players are legally blind, but still able to see shapes and colors. The rest are completely sightless.

Goal ball is an odd game. It is played by three-person teams that wear blindfolds and use bowling and soccer techniques to hurl bell-filled balls across a 60-foot court.

Points are scored by rolling the ball past opponents and over the goal line behind them. Opponents try to block the shot by listening for the jingling ball and throwing themselves in front of it.

"You react to the sound of the ball and to other players' breathing and squeaking shoes," said Montano. "It's a sport that some people have trouble visualizing."

Some players have trouble, too.

Competitors use their sense of touch to find boundaries marked by thick tape and their sense of hearing to find the ball.

But they often lose their sense of direction.

"It's hard to relocate yourself once you're playing. You talk all the time to your teammates so you can know where they are," said Jairo Jhon Rodriguez, 28, a Goodwill Industries PBX operator from Eagle Rock whose vision is limited by retinitis pigmentosa.

The blindfolds worn by all players keep the playing field level, said Juan Carlos Martinez, a 33-year-old Rosemead player who is totally blind because of a hereditary problem.

It's easy to see the effect that blindfolds have once the 14-minute games get going.

Balls sometimes fly at referees and spectators. Players crash into each other with impacts that leave heads ringing louder than the ball.

"You get pointed the wrong way and don't know it," said team coach Richard Nitcher, 60, of Diamond Bar.

Nitcher is retired forklift mechanic who learned about goal ball when blind athletes visited his La Puente Lion's Club 17 years ago looking for financial support. The players came away with cash and with Nitcher's volunteer help, too.

Since 1989 Nitcher has headed the California Assn. of Blind Athletes, which sponsors goal ball players.

And since 1993 he has been going blind himself because of diabetes.

Nitcher says that has put the game in a whole new league for him.

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