Mindy Cook Dreams Big, On And Off The Goalball Court
by Lynn Rutherford
Mindy Cook wasn’t sure goalball was a sport for her, at first.
Growing up in Celina, Ohio, she yearned to follow her two older siblings onto the soccer field. She tried. But, being born with limited vision due to aniridia — lack of fully developed irises — made it nearly impossible.
“I was unable to see the ball on the other side of the field, so I would just be running aimlessly trying to follow people,” Cook said. “A couple of times I got hit in the face with the soccer ball, because I didn’t know it was coming towards me. And so I didn’t think team sports were going to be a part of my life.”
She graduated from Ohio State University and started a career at the Defense Logistics Agency in Columbus, Ohio, where she is now a contract specialist. And that was that, until one day in 2016, when a co-worker encouraged her to take part in a goalball practice at the Ohio State School for the Blind.
Cook, then 28, was hesitant. She feared she was trading getting hit by a ball on the soccer pitch to being slammed by a 2.8-pound ball on a 59-foot-long, 30-foot-wide indoor court.
“I didn’t know anything about adaptive sports, and I had just gone so long without them,” she said. “But I finally went to a practice. … And it seemed intimidating, because you have a ball that’s going very fast, and you have to block it with your body. But it was one of those things where yes, you get hit in the face with the ball, it hurts, but it wakes you up and then you realize, ‘I want to get better at this.’”
By 2017, Cook was playing in tournaments. In June 2021, she was the only rookie on Team USA’s six-member goalball squad at Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, where she contributed to the team’s silver medal.
“Goalball is very fast paced,” Cook, now 35, said. “It’s a very physical, emotional and mental game; it’s something that you can always get better at, and that’s really why I fell in love with the sport.”
On Sunday, Cook and her teammates departed for Santiago, Chile, to compete in the Parapan American Games, held in that capital city Nov. 17-26. Held every four years following the Pan American Games, the event features 18 Paralympic sports or disciplines.
A win in Santiago will secure Team USA one of the eight goalball team spots at the upcoming Paris Games.
“There is definitely a lot of pressure, but I think that comes out of privilege,” Cook said. “We’ve worked really hard for that pressure, we’ve trained five days a week, our coaches really have a game plan in place for us, and we know that if we follow up playing that game plan, we will win.”
No one on the goalball squad is a stranger to pressure. In a semifinal contest at the Tokyo Games, Cook blocked a shot by Brazil during an overtime shootout, enabling the Americans to move to the final, where they were bested by Turkey.
“Everybody has their own role, whether it’s offense or defense or a supporting role,” Cook said. “It just kind of depends on what’s needed at the moment.”
The sport — invented in 1946 as a means of assisting the rehabilitation of visually impaired World War II veterans — is a game of strength and strategy. Players attempt to deceive opponents while laying their bodies on the line. All athletes are blindfolded and wear visors; bells inside the ball indicate where the play is taking place on the court. Athletes play both offense and defense.
Cook, who travels to Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Turnstone Center a few weeks each month to train with her teammates under coach Jake Czechowski and strength coach EJ Whitney, credits the veterans of the squad — including Amanda Dennis, Asya Miller, Eliana Mason and Lisa Czechowski — with welcoming her aboard and enabling her to improve.
“The veteran girls on the court were able to help me mentally and, I think, expedite the process of me getting better with all my skills on the court,” she said. “Lisa and Asya, they are six-time Paralympians. They’ve been the high-pressure situations. And then we have Eliana and Amanda, who also are veterans of the sport and they’re very skilled. They have really taken me under their wings on and off the court, and just show me the strategy of the game.”
The Defense Logistics Agency, where Cook has worked since 2011, proudly follows her career, celebrating the team’s silver medal in Tokyo with an article and photos on its website and social media.
“My entire agency is supportive of Team USA and our mission,” Cook said. “I have a very supportive supervisor who allows me to go to Fort Wayne and train there and also work full time; plus, my goalball coaching staff has also been super supportive.
“They will let me leave practice early if need be for a work call, or take a break if need be. So, I definitely have a really great support system that allows me to work a 40-hour workweek and train.”
Off of the court, Cook thinks the lessons she has learned in her sport have not only made her better at her job, but a more resilient, confident person overall.
“(Goalball) is about being analytical, having strategy and just being able to be persistent and to work through the ups and downs,” she said. “It’s about taking your failures and getting up, dusting yourself off, asking questions and working to get better. … It’s been able to show me that having a disability is not inferior, it means that I am different and that is OK.”
The sport has done so much for her, she is determined to open it up to more sight-impaired young women. Through her home club in Columbus, she helped start a new team, the Ohio Monarchs, and is working to enable others to find their way in the goalball community.
“It’s about being a role model for other young athletes with disabilities who want to be involved,” Cook said. “To be a mentor for other girls to show them as they grow up that they can do anything, they can achieve their dreams. And they should dream big because the opportunities are there.”