BERKELEY — Jessie Lorenz dives for the ball, sliding her strong, lithe body across the dirty gym floor. The gymnasium is silent except for the jingling of the blue rubber ball, which a hit from Lorenz has sent rolling like toddler's toy across the floor.
Lorenz, who is completely blind, can't see the ball. But she knows where it is. As goalie, she'd better.
Protective goggles are planted solidly on her narrow face. She wears about as much padding as a professional hockey player. No doubt that bruises and welts mark the 135-pound body underneath that padding. Her dark eyeshade beneath the plastic goggles make her look more like a masked bandit than a Paralympic athlete.
But for Lorenz, 29, of Kensington, goalball — one of the 20 sports that will be played at the Paralympic Games next month in Beijing — isn't about looking good. It's about feeling good, pushing her limits as a blind woman and proving to herself and the world that blind people can do whatever they set their hearts and minds to.
"I have become more aware that athletes with disabilities have an important role. "... We've become what other people think is impossible," said Lorenz, who was born blind, a result of glaucoma while still in her mother's uterus. "(At the Paralympics), all of the athletes have disabilities and all of them are committed to being the best in the world."
Everyone who plays goalball is blind, either totally or partially. The dark eyeshades are required to level the playing field. Goalball players rely on their ears to hear where the ball — with its nine sleigh bells inside — is on the court. They rely on the tactile markings on the court to determine where other players are.
Silence in the stands and on the court is essential.
Determined for gold
Lorenz, part of the six-member women's goalball team, went to Athens, Greece, in 2004 and brought home a silver medal. This time, she said she isn't leaving Beijing without the gold medal around her neck.
"I'm confident," said team coach Ken Armbruster, whose daughter, Jen Armbruster, is also on the team. "A lot of people think it's going to be a three horse race between Canada and China and the U.S. It's going to be very competitive. We are going to have to play well. There's an old saying, 'The harder you work, the luckier you get.' I just hope that we've worked hard enough to get a little luck over there."
Goalball pits two teams of three against one another on an indoor court. Teams score by throwing the ball across the other team's goal line. There are no nets or baskets.
It's unlikely you've ever heard of Lorenz, though she's out there in cyberspace, blogging under the name "Goalball Girl."
Raised in Colorado by a single mother, she was introduced to goalball at a sports education camp when she was 13. She had a natural affinity and love for the game, Armbruster said.
It's not surprising. As long as she can remember, Lorenz says she's been an unstoppable tomboy of sorts.
"I've always been blind and I've always been running around and climbing trees," she said.
As a kid, her mom took flak from neighbors who would raise their eyebrows at the energetic blind kid.
"Keep her close," Lorenz recalls them saying. A garbage man once overstepped his bounds, chastising Lorenz's mother for letting her run around. The retort was quick and firm. "What do you want me to do — tie her to a chair and turn on the radio?" Lorenz said her mother told him.
Lorenz may have learned that unwavering resolve from her mom.
While her positive energy, belief in herself, wit and self-deprecating humor seem boundless, she is not one to be crossed.
When a cab driver at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street in Berkeley recently refused to take her and her guide dog, Nacho, saying, "I don't take no blind dogs," Lorenz immediately filed a complaint with the Berkeley City Attorney's office.
When she greeted a group of people who were chatting outside the Kensington home she shares with her fiancé, Thomas Foley, 42, and the group didn't return the greeting, she immediately marched back outside and asked them who they were and what they were doing. First angered by the snub, in the end, she struck up a friendly conversation and donated $40 to the Democratic National Convention, which they were raising money for, Foley said.
"She does have a take-charge attitude," said Foley, who is trained as a tax attorney and now works as a program manager for Access to Assets at the World Institute on Disability in Oakland.
That take-charge attitude has helped her immensely on the goalball court.
"I'm really good at getting the ball and keeping it from going into the (goal)," she said. She is extremely aggressive on the court.
When Lorenz makes a good play, a shy smile forms on her face. When a ball gets by her she also flashes a grin at her opponents. It's a look that seems to say, "Yeah, that's the last time that will happen, bucko."
An affinity for goalball
Lorenz has tried other sports — track and field, swimming, tandem cycling — but has always returned to goalball.
"Goalball is a team sport, I liked that immediately," she said. "And I had a natural aptitude for it. Now I get to travel the world and do the thing that I love."
She spends about seven hours a week playing the game and many more hours doing strength and cardio training, including a 5:20 a.m. workout with her fiancé, who is also blind. Foley will travel to Beijing to be with Lorenz at the 2008 Summer Paralympic Games from Sept. 6 through 17.
About 4,000 disabled athletes from 145 countries are expected to take part in about 20 sports during the games, including swimming, rowing, wheelchair basketball, powerlifting and wheelchair tennis.
First introduced as a demonstration event at the 1972 Paralympic Games during in Toronto, goalball's first championship was held in 1978. Goalball became a permanent sport in the Paralympics at the 1980 games in Anaheim. But goalball's roots go back much further.
Goalball was invented in 1946 by Austrian Hanz Lorenzen and German Sepp Reindle as a way to rehabilitate blind post-World War II veterans, according to Internet information on the sport. It is now played in 112 countries.
Players attempt to throw the ball over the goal line at the opposite end of the court, thus scoring a goal. Defenders try to gain possession of the ball by putting themselves between the thrower and the goal. When a defender gains possession, it is then his or her team's turn to throw at the opposing team's goal. The only time play stops is after a goal has been scored, or if the ball crosses a sideline.
Matches last 20 minutes and are divided into two equal halves with a 3 minute break in between, according to background information on the sport.
A popular sport
The women's team is made up of Jen Armbruster, who splits her time between Colorado Springs, Colo., and Birmingham, Ala.; Lisa Banta of Boonton, N.J., and Tucson, Ariz.; Jaclyn Barnes of Wadsworth, Ill.; Asya Miller of Lapeer, Mich., and Colorado Springs; Robyn Theryoung of Clarkston, Mich., and Colorado Springs; and Lorenz. Except for one woman, it is the same team that competed in Athens and brought home the silver medal. They practice together at least a dozen times a year and have beefed that up in advance of the games.
Goalball is one of the most popular team sports for people with visual impairment.
"It's also a hot ticket at the Paralympics," said Jonathan Newman, program coordinator at Bay Area Outreach and Recreation in Berkeley, which runs a goalball team in Berkeley. "It's ironic: Visually, it's very compelling to watch. It's amazing what athletes can do."
Newman said goalball is popular because a person can come in at any level and have a good time playing. Women also make up about 25 percent of all the people who play with his organization, which has run a goalball program for 20 years, he said.
Lorenz is a strong advocate for getting blind people involved in sports.
"I think exercise and movement and competition makes people feel good about themselves," she said. "The way you feel about yourself is often directly related to the rest of the world. Sports teaches us about our own capacity."
Lorenz isn't just a role model for the visually impaired on the goalball court. In her job as director of public policy for the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Lorenz advocates for the blind by pushing for better access on public transportation and more audible crosswalks in San Francisco.
She also tries to enlighten people she meets that blind people can — and do — have the ability to take care of themselves. Lorenz shops, pays her bills, cooks, uses a computer and takes public transportation on her own. To avoid being duped, she folds her $1 bills a certain way and her $20 bills another way. She does the bulk of her grocery shopping online with her talking computer and then labels canned goods with a Braille label maker.
She has an office in San Francisco that she and her guide dog Nacho commute to on BART every day.
"I don't see myself as limited in any way, but I am constantly having to enlighten people," she said.
There may be a reason for that.
Seven in 10 working-age blind people in the United States are unemployed, according to the National Industries for the Blind. But for those who compete in sports, more than 60 percent are employed, Lorenz said.
"Social change takes more than laws, it takes engaging people's hearts and minds, and I think we have some work to do," she said. But first, Lorenz has some personal work ahead of her: bringing home the gold.
About 4,000 disabled athletes from 145 countries will participate in the games, held Sept. 6 though 17 in Beijing. Goalball games are Sept. 6 through 13, with finals on Sept. 14. The Paralympics, governed by the International Paralympic Committee, feature athletes from six different disability groups: amputee, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, spinal injury, intellectual disability and les autres, a group that includes all those that do not fit into the aforementioned groups. Summer Paralympic sports include archery, athletics, cycling, goalball, judo, powerlifting, swimming, table tennis, and wheelchair sports such as basketball, fencing, rugby and tennis. Visit www.paralympic.org for more information.