By Donovan Harrell
During the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, the Ukraine men’s national goalball team outpaced the U.S. team 4 -1 at the end of the first half. At the start of the second half, Calahan Young activated.
Young, a U.S. team captain from Irwin, scored one goal after another, slipping the 3-pound basketball-sized ball between Ukraine’s players and tying up the game.
He sealed the team’s victory and progression through the quarterfinal match in overtime after he spun and slung the ball, which rolled over two of Ukraine’s defenders into the net.
“No one would’ve thought that we would’ve won that quarterfinal game,” Young says. “The fact that we were able to come back and win, it was nuts. It’s like that storybook finish.”
Young’s leadership was recognized last month when the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) named him one of 16 athletes in the organization’s 2023 Sport Ambassador Program.
Through this program, which is now in its second year, Young and other athletes will represent the USABA as they support fundraising efforts, expand programming and spread awareness of sports for blind and visually impaired athletes. The ambassadors represent various sports, including goalball, soccer, track & field, swimming and triathlons.
Paralympic athletes receive funding through the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and USABA Sport Ambassadors receive a stipend.
Marybai Huking, sport program coordinator for the USABA, says the ambassadors have some of the most impactful stories to tell about how these sports changed their lives.
“Many of the programs we work with involve exposing kids to adaptive sports and inspiring them to pursue sports they may not have even known existed,” Huking says. “Calahan offers invaluable mentorship, setting an example for the next generation of athletes.”
Young, however, has been an advocate for disabled sports long before this year — but now his message has a platform and is amplified, he says.
“As a person that’s blind, if you don’t have representation, you don’t really know what you can do. So, it’s just nice to be that influence,” Young says, adding that he and the other ambassadors want to empower the next generation of players.
This program is especially meaningful because it gives aspiring blind and visually impaired people role models, says Keith Young, head coach of the U.S. men’s national goalball team. Role model athletes who are blind or visually impaired are hard to come by, he adds.
“So having this program fills in that gap,” the coach says. “To bring these athletes and to have them meet young people who are visually impaired and their families and people who educate and coach, it means the world to them. Not everyone is going to be a Paralympian, but anyone can be inspired to be better.”
Standing at 6’7”, Calahan Young is the tallest goalball player in the world and is one of the sport’s best players. He started playing the sport when he was 12 and joined the national team in 2017.
He has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition where a person’s retinas don’t fully develop, limiting their peripheral vision and causing night blindness. People with this condition lose their vision as they age.
Young’s debut game was in Tokyo where the U.S. team beat Brazil’s goalball team, which had been undefeated for six years. In the Tokyo 2020 games, the U.S. men’s goalball team placed fourth, while the women’s team came home with silver.
He was first introduced to goalball 10 years earlier after Young and his mother learned about Envision Blind Sports, a summer camp sports program for blind and visually impaired children based in Slippery Rock.
Off the court, Young works as a full-time associate consultant with FUND Consulting. He earned his bachelor’s degree in therapeutic and recreational therapy from Slippery Rock University in 2017 and his master’s degree in healthcare administration from George Mason University in 2021.
Young also serves as an athlete representative on the USABA Board of Directors.
While the USABA headquarters is in Boulder, Colorado, the goalball program is based in a residential facility in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Young travels back and forth between Fort Wayne and Pittsburgh.
Goalball was created in the 1940s after World War II for blind and visually impaired veterans. It hit the world stage in 1976, when the first U.S. goalball teams participated in the Olympiad for the Physically Disabled in Toronto. The event later evolved into the Paralympic Games, which are held the same year as the Olympic Games about one month after the closing ceremony.
Since 1976, U.S. goalball teams have earned 11 Paralympic medals, with the women’s team earning two gold, two silver and two bronze and the men’s team earning one gold, three silver and one bronze.
Goalball is played in two 12-minute halves with a 3-minute break. After the break, the teams switch sides. The 18-meter-long court has strings at the boundary lines and the rubber ball is hallowed out with sleigh bells inside.
The six players on the court wear masks that fully blind them, forcing them to rely on their ears and reflexes to stop and block the ball and prevent it from going behind them. Top players can throw the ball as fast as 45 to 50 mph, Keith Young says.
“Goalball is relentless,” the coach adds. “It’s a total body sport. You don’t hide from it. You have to have the ability to play offense and defense because it’s a 3-on-3 sport.”
When Calahan Young introduces the sport to people, they watch it and get hooked. He and his team have a nickname for it:
“We coin it as ‘the coolest sport you’ve never heard of.’”
Donovan Harrell is a communications specialist at the University of Pittsburgh and a freelance journalist. Prior to his role as a communications specialist, he wrote about Pitt faculty and staff issues for the University Times, a digital publication at Pitt. He has also worked as a congressional and digital reporter for McClatchy DC, and as a breaking news reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. To connect with Donovan, send him an email.