Matt Simpson On Finding Refuge In Goalball And Not Letting His Disability Define Him
by Matt Simpson
Matt Simpson competes at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 in Lima, Peru.
What's Your Why presented by DeVry highlights athlete’s individual motivations that drive them to pursue greatness on their journey to achieve their Olympic & Paralympic dreams.
I play a sport called Goalball. Many, even the most avid fans of Team USA, will have never heard of goalball. It is, after all, the only sport on the Paralympic program that doesn’t have an able-bodied counterpart. One can imagine wheelchair basketball or quad rugby, even if you’ve never seen a game. But goalball? The name certainly doesn’t give any hints.
To imagine my sport, picture three athletes, all of whom are blind and are also wearing blacked out goggles to eliminate any visual inequities, throwing a three-pound ball on the ground at their opponents at speeds more than 50 miles per hour. These opponents, less than forty feet away, rather than doing the prudent thing and avoiding the ball, instead do their very best to try to get any part of their body between that hurtling ball and the goal they are tasked with defending. They just hope it’s a big enough part of their body that the ball stops and doesn’t take that body part along with it into the net.
It is, I promise, the best sport you’ve never heard of.
Growing up with a disability is hard—of course it is. Being visually impaired from birth presented me with challenges every day as a kid. Some of those challenges were easy to see and understand for friends and family. As a young kid, I wasn’t fazed much probably mostly because I didn’t know I should be phased. I couldn’t see in the dark, I couldn’t read small print and sometimes I ran into things at varying levels of speed and with varying degrees of resulting injury. Yet, these were minor setbacks as they would be to a kid who didn’t know any other normal.
But every year that went by brought a little bit less vision. Every turn of the calendar imposed a stricter limit on me, even as I didn’t know I should be limited by anything. As my world shrank along with my acuity, I began to understand that even my best efforts would never help me see.
I’d never be able to compete with my sighted peers on the basketball court, the baseball diamond or the football field. I could run on the track with the aid of a guide, sure, but I wanted to be on a team. I wanted to compete, with no guidance from a sighted person. I wanted to win, or lose, on my own skill and ability—or lack thereof.
I was ten years old when I found goalball. Finding the sport meant much more than just finding a game to play. I found an outlet where I could win or lose, succeed or fail, and the only thing that didn’t matter in goalball, unlike everywhere else, was how much I could see.
It mattered that I was unskilled at the game. It mattered that I was a scrawny kid who couldn’t throw that three-pound goalball hard enough to intimidate anyone, much less actually score a goal. So, I set out to be the best.
I knew right away that I wanted to be a Paralympian. I wanted to be the best in the world and wear the red, white and blue. This seemed like a foolish pursuit to many. I was small. I was weak. I lost more goalball games than I could count. I tried again and again to make youth national teams and was constantly told that maybe I should try running or swimming where my particular type of athleticism would be more well-suited.
But what I quickly learned was that those things that mattered in goalball—my strength, my skill, my will to win—those things were up to me. They couldn’t be limited by my genetic misfortune. They couldn’t be discounted by someone who didn’t think that blind people could be successful at much, especially sports.
I quickly learned that I could, and often would, fail, but not because of my visual impairment. And it was up to me how I responded to those failures. It was up to me if I wanted to train harder than everyone else. If I was too small and weak, I would become bigger and stronger. If I didn’t have the skills to match up, I would practice more. The fact that I was blind, which so many observers would see as a defining characteristic, didn’t factor into those things at all. I wanted to be the best because I didn’t want to be defined by my blindness.
Eventually those defeats grew to be fewer. The hard work paid off as my weaknesses became my strengths. I found a place among the best athletes in the world who just happen to be blind. And then, at what I thought was the end of that part of my story, my teammates and I stood on the podium in Rio, where I had dreamt of being so many years before.
I took a break from Team USA, maybe a permanent one for all I knew. I had to find the next outlet. So, I went back to school. I picked the only career where I thought I could satisfy my competitive drive and apply the personal skills that come from training for years to be the best at something. I kept training, for fun, even as I stayed away from international competition so I could focus on school. I married an amazing woman, came back to Team USA just to see what I could do, thought COVID-19 put an end to that, had a beautiful baby, started a demanding career. But much to my surprise I find myself back, about to go to the Paralympics—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—for a second time.
Tokyo feels like a stolen chance. I didn’t think I could make it work, and all of us know the disappointment of unrealized milestones and canceled momentous events over these past fifteen months. But nevertheless, here we are. I head into Tokyo much as I went to Rio; with a desire to be the best in the world at my sport. But I also go with gratitude. For an event that might not have been of course. But also, for the providential circumstances that have brought me to the eve of my second Paralympics. And for the opportunity to do what I dreamed of as a kid.
I started down this path because I wanted to find something where being blind didn’t matter, and I found it in goalball. But now I know that being blind never did matter anywhere else either. I go to Tokyo knowing what I would have my five-month-old daughter know. That we are not defined by our wins and losses, nor our abilities or disabilities. We are defined how we allow ourselves to be defined, by the choices we make every day. By the work we put in, and how we treat those we meet along the way.
I set out on this Paralympic journey hoping to define myself beyond my disability. Now, wherever the path leads next, I know, and get to show the world on the biggest stage, that disability doesn’t define anyone. I compete, just like all of my brothers and sisters on Team USA, because I’ve been blessed with some combination of talent and stubborn determination that never permitted me to quit, no matter the obstacle. So, I’ll go to Tokyo like each and every one of my Team USA teammates, Olympic or Paralympic, determined to make sure we’re not listening to anyone else’s anthem on the last day.