FORT WAYNE, Ind. – The thrills of Olympic competition are a unique experience for Andrew Jenks and his goalball teammates.
A three-pound ball whooshes past Jenks’ ear at 50 miles an hour and into the net of the rectangular-shaped goal. The sound of a disheartened grunt fills the air, followed by the faint jingling of bells as Jenks, wearing black eyeshades and dark goggles over both eyes, extends his hands to find the ball.
“That was an awesome shot,” he shouts to one of his two teammates on the basketball-style court.
Jenks is one of six athletes who qualified for the U.S. men’s goalball team in the Paralympics Games, being held Sept. 7-18 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A sport created in 1946 to help rehabilitate war veterans, goalball is played by visually impaired athletes, who use blackout masks to ensure equality. Part of the Games since Toronto 1976, 10 men’s and 10 women’s teams compete in Rio.
Jenks and his team spent the summer practicing inside the soundproof gymnasium of Fort Wayne’s Turnstone Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities. A $15 million expansion completed in Spring 2016 allowed the team to have its own training site with special flooring and taped lines.
“A big thank you goes out to the city of Fort Wayne, PNC Bank, private donors and other partners for investing millions of dollars in this leading-edge athletic facility,” said Mike Mushett, Turnstone CEO. “The contributions of Federal New Markets Tax Credits from the City and PNC have helped us better serve individuals with disabilities, as well as brought thousands more visitors to the region.”
The expansion includes an Adaptive Sports and Recreation Complex, a warm-water pool for aquatic therapy, four collegiate-sized basketball courts and a 230-meter indoor track.
As the nation’s only dedicated goalball training facility, Turnstone became the goalball team’s official site in the fall of 2015. The center’s staff hopes to gain prestigious status from the U.S. Olympic Committee as a Paralympic training site for multiple sports.
“As business leaders, we try and create opportunities for the community we live in,” said Jeff Dysert, commercial banking, PNC Bank. “When we get to watch for example, the goalball athletes train, and see them thrive in an environment we’ve helped create, it’s more than fulfilling, it’s contagious inspiration.”
Jenks, who has played for six years, qualified for a bronze medal at the 2014 World Championships, but 2016 is his first-ever Paralympic Games. Born with incomplete color blindness, he is sensitive to light and cannot drive. The rest of his teammates have visual impairments and several are blind.
“Having a visual impairment or any other physical impairment is something that almost always becomes a barrier to inclusion to sports or physical activity,” Jenks said. “Goalball has offered opportunities for me and hundreds of other athletes to push past these boundaries and see the world and best of all, to represent my country.”
Win or lose, he’ll head back to Wilmington, Del., to finish his dissertation proposal for graduate school.
When asked if his team could bring home a fourth gold medal, Jenks cracked a wide grin and said: “Why not?”
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