July 9, 2013 Updated: July 9, 2013 at 10:04 pm
For the fifth time since 2005, Colorado Springs is hosting the International Blind Sports Association World Youth Championships and the Pan American Games.
And as each national team starts its road toward qualifying for the 2016 Paralympics, the U.S. plans to capitalize on its home-court advantage.
"The first big thing is that we don't have to travel," said Matt Simpson, an Atlanta native and men's national goalball team member who also serves as the membership and outreach coordinator at the United States Association of Blind Athletes, the Colorado Springs-based national governing body. "We all traveled here early to get used to the altitude. That could be a sizable advantage. Plus, I think it's definitely an advantage to have it in front of our fans. It's our only international tournament that we host in the U.S."
More than 400 blind and visually impaired athletes from 17 countries begin competition Thursday at the concurrently running four-day events. The World Youth Championships feature some of the world's top up-and-coming athletic talent, while the Pan American Games feature many Paralympic athletes, including the men's and women's national goalball teams and national judo team.
Festivities start with an Olympic style parade of nations at Armstrong Hall on the CC campus at 7 p.m. Wednesday. This event is free and open to the public.
Goalball, a team sport designed for blind and visually impaired athletes, takes place at Colorado College's El Pomar Gym. St. Mary's High School is hosting judo competition.
So, what is goalball?
Developed in Austria as a means of rehabilitating veterans who were blinded during World War II, the sport pits two three-person teams against each other on an area roughly the size of a volleyball court.
The object is, in a bowling-type motion, to roll a half-pound ball, about the same size as a basketball, the length of the court and past three defenders, who sprawl to block the ball based on auditory senses. The net behind the defenders measures about 30 feet long and 4 feet high.
The game caught on and was featured as a demonstration sport at the 1976 Summer Paralympic Games in Toronto.
Due to differing levels of visual impairment, all players wear blindfolds during action.
The men's national team failed to qualify for last summer's London Games, while the women's team was eliminated before the medal round. This weekend offers an opportunity to exorcise a few demons and regain its status as a world leader. The women's team took gold in Beijing in 2008, while the men's squad finished third at the 2004 Athens Games.
"We're really focused on Rio, for sure," said Simpson, whose sight was reduced to light perception and shadows after being born with a congenital retina disease. "Brazil is here, and they knocked us out of qualifying for London, so the guys have a vested interest in evening the score. Plus, it'll be a barometer for how well we're doing since they were second in London."