By Keaton Hills
The Ottawa-powered Canadian women’s goalball team earned an encouraging fourth-place finish against the world’s best one year outside of the Paralympic Games, but their path to Paris 2024 still requires some heavy lifting.
Canada showed it was capable of challenging for a spot on the global podium by placing fourth out of 12 countries at the Aug. 20-27 International Blind Sports Federation World Games in Coventry, UK, but only champion China clinched a Paralympic berth at that event.
Team Canada left winger Emma Reinke says the squad was hoping to book their ticket to Paris, but that she was still satisfied with the performance of her team, which also includes fellow Ottawa players Amy Burk and Whitney Bogart.
“Overall I’m really proud of the way that everyone played,” indicates the 25-year-old. “We really did come together as a team. I have no complaints about that.”
Canada will get another chance to qualify for the Paralympics at the Nov. 17-26 Parapan American Games in Santiago, Chile. Brazil – which beat Canada twice at the IBSA Games, including the 2-0 bronze medal match – has already qualified for Paris 2024. That leaves USA as Canada’s main target at the Parapan Ams. Canada beat the Americans 6-1 in their meeting at the IBSA Games, where USA wound up finishing just one spot behind Canada in fifth.
The Parapan Am Games will be the region’s final Paralympic qualification opportunity (the number of goalball teams was reduced to eight for Paris from the 10 that participated in recent Games).
Burk recognizes that they’ve got a tough challenge to reach the Paralympics, but the team captain says she believes that Canada is right up there with the best on the planet, and if they do qualify, the team’s expectations will be to get on the podium.
The Canadian women won medals at five of the first six Paralympic goalball tournaments, but have fallen agonizingly short on several occasions since 33-year-old Burk broke onto the Paralympic team as a rookie for Beijing 2008.
Bogart has been on board for the past three Paralympics and became sisters-in-law midway through the 16 years they’ve played together in the sport.
“We can be gone for long periods of time and it’s just nice sharing that with someone who you’re family with,” signals Burk. “There are lots of times where my husband and my kids don’t make the trip, so it’s just nice having that extra person with you.
“We both have the goal of wanting to get Canada on the podium. Just being able to share that with her is pretty exciting.”
Bogart says the pair don’t think much about their personal relationship when they’re on the floor, but their long history together does serve as a weapon.
“We were teammates before (we became sisters-in-law) and friends even before that too, so it’s just kind of a natural way that we play,” explains the 37-year-old. “When we’re on court, we know how each other plays and we just have a really good connection.”
Making Paralympics critical for goalball spotlight in Canada
On top of trying to perform at their peak, goalball players in Canada also focus a bunch on trying to grow the sport and to create more awareness about it.
Goalball is a sport played in total silence by players with visual impairments. The primary objective is to throw the ball with a bowling motion into the opposing team’s net, which stretches the length of the court. The ball has a bell in it that rings as it rolls so that players are able to track where it is and attempt to block it without being able to see it.
Burk notes that it can be a struggle to find spaces to be able to play in silence.
“It’s not like we can rent half a gym and have basketball happening on one side or floor hockey on one side and then goalball on another. It just can’t really work,” signals the four-time Paralympian. “If you’re a hockey team or a basketball team or a soccer team, it’s so easy to go and rent those spaces because people know that sport.”
It’s an ongoing battle to get goalball in the spotlight, but getting the chance to showcase their sport to Canadians by making it to the Paralympics (and especially hitting the podium) would be big tools in that quest.
“I think one of the main things is just being known. The sport is not known and anytime we speak to anyone about it, they don’t know what it is, and then we have to explain it every time,” highlights Bogart, whose team’s Facebook page served as a better tool to track the Canada’s progress in Coventry than official sources.
“If we were able to have it promoted better or just more known in the public, it would help the sport grow,” she adds.
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