Friday, September 5, 2008

Thinking big on a small stage - P.E.I. goalball athletes Contessa Scott and Amy Kneebone are in Beijing to compete

Thinking big on a small stage
P.E.I. goalball athletes Contessa Scott and Amy Kneebone are in Beijing to compete

The Guardian

Contessa Scott, left, and Amy Kneebone run through
practices to keep themselves sharp for the
2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. (Guardian photo)

It didn’t seem too difficult a question, just an icebreaker to get the interview rolling.

To Amy Kneebone, it’s more. She hesitates at ‘what has she learned from Contessa Scott, her teammate on Canada’s women’s goalball team, about what to expect at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, China?’

“Hmmm,” answered the 18-year-old Kneebone.

The sound echoes in the quiet gym at Park Royal church where Scott, a two-time Paralympic gold medallist, and Kneebone, a Team Canada Paralympic rookie, practised twice-weekly before leaving for Beijing.

“I know. I’m not that special,” said Scott, 34, laughing.

Scott is a vision-impaired farmer from Clyde River with a dry but rollicking sense of humour.

She is also one of P.E.I.’s most successful athletes at the national and international level, in any sport.

She has back-to-back Paralympic gold medals around her neck and world and national goalball titles in her showcases.

But after a few seconds, Kneebone, a member of Canada’s 2006 world championship team, finds an answer.

“Pretty much go into every game having it in your head the team is going to get scored on. I’m not going to be the one to let up. You know, have that kind of confidence going into it all,” said Kneebone, who admits to a bit of nervousness.

Who wouldn’t be?

Beijing in 2008 is the athletic big time. It’s two weeks of sights, sounds and smells unlike any other.

The Olympics had its 15 minutes of fame, now it’s time for the Paralympics to come out in its Sept. 6-17 debutante ball.

But that’s the off-court stuff.

On the 18-metre long by nine-metre wide goalball floor, it’s a narrower focus.

The trick, says Kneebone, is thinking small.

“When it comes down to it you’re just going to be in a gym and the markings, the whole court size is all going to be the same,” she said. “By the time you get into a game . . . you’re dealing with the exact same amount of space you always have.”

Canada is the two-time defending Paralympic champion and the seven other countries in the week-long goalball tourney will be gunning for the Canucks.

Scott’s team is also defending world champ, courtesy of a 5-2 victory over China at the 2006 championship in North Carolina.

The win qualified Canada, which also includes Saskatchewan’s Amy Alsop and Shawna Ryan, Ontario’s Annette Lisabeth, and Quebec’s Nancy Morin, for Beijing.

It’s no cakewalk to the podium, however, in a round- robin tourney where team plays each other once and top four reach the semifinals. Kneebone and Scott admit Canada’s competition has beefed-up in the last two ears and say up to six teams have a shot at the medals.

And Canada has been less than dominant.

Recent tournaments in Sweden, where it didn’t reach the semifinals, and Alabama, where it lost in the final to Denmark, prove it.

Scott says the stronger field is a matter of mechanics, innovation and imitation.

“Different throws that are being used now and teams are starting the follow the example that we had set in the two Paralympics by being in good physical condition,” says Scott. “What’s coming in the last year or two is the bounce shot. The ball is bouncing say four times before it gets to the other end.”

That move to complement straight hard shots and curves is perfectly legal as long as it hits once on throwers side, once in the middle and once on the defenders side.

The Japanese brought in the trick which uses the ball’s proclivity to bounce off a defender and into the net.

It’s caught on, too, as Sweden, America, China, Brazil and Canada’s Lisebeth utilize the strategy. In Brazil’s case, with gusto.

“There’s actually a girl from Brazil that will throw backwards between her legs,” said Kneebone. “It looks ridiculous, but it’ll bounce the whole way.”

“I think two or three of them play in bare feet,” says Scott, wearing burly protective gear that has her looking like a linebacker.

Still, ask the pair if the world has caught up and there is more hesitation.

“You don’t like to say no,” said Scott.

“And you don’t like to say yes,” Kneebone followed.

“When we’re playing at the top of our game, we are the best at what we do,” said Scott.

Although the team is spread throughout the country, internet and old-fashioned phones keep members in touch. That and week-long practices once a month in Montreal keep the team connected, says Scott.

Since 1984 in New York, the first year of women’s goalball, Canada has won two gold, two bronze and a silver. Scott, now a goalballer for over two decades, has been a part of the best years.

But is the veteran nervous?

“Sure, I’ve got two gold medals going over there to defend. There hasn’t been a team that’s won Worlds and won Paralympics. Any team that’s won a world championship has never won a Paralympics. There go our odds,” she says. “Hey, there’s always a first for everything and it could be us.”

Canada is coached by Janice Dawson, who took over the national team from Stratford’s Frank MacIntyre in 2006.

The P.E.I. Department of Communities, Cultural Affairs and Labour has set up a website — —?where Islanders can post messages to Kneebone and Scott.

Team Canada is comprised of 280 athletes, coaches, team leaders and mission staff.


Canada’s Paralympic goalball schedule (all times AT):

Sunday - vs. Sweden, 12 p.m.

Monday - vs Brazil, 7 a.m.

Tuesday - vs. Japan, 12 a.m.

Wednesday - vs. Germany, 12 a.m.

Thursday - vs. Denmark, 10 a.m.

Sept. 12 - vs. United States, 2 a.m.

Sept. 13 - vs. China, 1 a.m.

Sept. 14 - Semifinals begin.


A Beijing Paralympics primer:

What is it? - An international, quadrennial, multi-sport event for athletes with physical, mental and/or sensorial disabilities, including mobility and visual disabilities, amputees and those with cerebral palsy.

When is it? - Sept. 6-17, 2008, three weeks after the closing of the 2008 Olympic Games.

Where is it? - Beijing, China.

Sports - 20, including goalball, sailing, rowing (new for 2008) and wheelchair rugby.

Started - 1960 in Rome, Italy. Officially called the ninth annual International Stoke Mandeville Games, it’s considered the initial Paralympics. The first winter Paralympics were in Sweden in 1976.


A quick lowdown on goalball:

* Goalball is a team sport for men and women who are blind or partially sighted. A team has six players but only three players per team can be on the court at any one time.

* All competitors wear blackout masks to ensure that none have any light perception or vision.

* The object is to score goals by rolling a goalball using a bowling action toward the opposing team’s goal, which spans the entire width of the court.

* Players attempt to prevent the goalball from crossing the goal line. Goalballs contain noise bells along with raised lines on the court to help orient the players.

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