Looking beyond disability: Lisa Banta battles goalball opponents and her decreasing eyesight - Tucson Local Media: Import

Looking beyond disability: Lisa Banta battles goalball opponents and her decreasing eyesight

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Posted: Tuesday, August 22, 2006 11:00 pm

August 23, 2006 - Lisa Banta has to chuckle when opening the stylish box that contains her silver medal from the 2006 Athens Paralympic Games.

The makers of the box accidentally designed it so that the medal comes out upside-down. It's not exactly your traditional packaging, but then again, there's nothing conventional about Banta and her chosen sport, goalball.

Banta is a starting member of the United States Paralympic Goalball squad, and despite playing a sport that often flies under the radar of mainstream sports culture, has enjoyed a world of success.

"The world is not perfect," laughs Banta, who has earned her share of medals in both goalball and track and field.

Banta suffers from Cone Dystrophy, a form of macular degeneration, which gradually degenerates the cones of her eyes and causes painful oversensitivity to light, reduced central vision and colorblindness. She also suffers from Nystagmus, which creates involuntary movements of the eyes. Technically, she can see - just not very far or in detail.

But despite limited vision, Banta has seen a lot of the world thanks to goalball.

She was introduced to the sport in 1995 after competing in track and field for more than eight years. As Banta found out, adjusting to the sport wasn't the toughest part.

"I was pretty resistant," said Banta about trading track and field for goalball. After all, in high school she was one of the top discus throwers in the Morris County, N.J. "I didn't understand it, I thought I was going down a level."

In fact, Banta was moving up to a sport with international appeal. What made it more difficult was that Banta had been a highly successful athlete throughout high school, throwing the discus.

Goalball was first created in 1946 in Austria. It was designed for blinded World War II veterans to stay in shape after the war. Eventually the sport caught on, went global and is now a Paralympic event.

It is played on a surface the size of a collegiate volleyball course. Players - three to a side - take turns hurtling a 4-pound ball in a bowling motion down court at a five foot high net. The ball contains bells so defenders can react to the sound. Even being able to see, Banta does not have an advantage over blind opponents. All competitors are made to wear blackened goggles and are penalized if they touch them during a match.

Defenders stop shots by diving to their left and right, spending the majority of the game on the ground. It's a highly physical sport and leaves many players with bruised shoulders, shins and knees.

"Basically the objective of the game is the opposite of dodge ball," explained Banta, who plays wing for the United States. In goalball, the wings act as primary scorers while the center is a stalwart on defense.

Since joining team USA in 1996, Banta has competed in every Paralympics and World Championships held in places such as Sydney and Athens. This summer the team qualified for the 2008 Paralympic games in Beijing.

As a result of the team's success, she has toured the White House twice and got to shake hands with former President Bill Clinton.

Away from the Goalball court, Banta is a Rehabilitation Program Coordinator for the Southern Arizona Association for the Visually Impaired - better known as SAAVI.

SAAVI - with clients ranging in age from 18 through 104 - works with clients from throughout the Tucson Metro area, including the Northwest and Foothills, to acclimate them to life without sight.

Banta coordinates two programs. The first one is designed for people over 55 who are just learning how to cope with vision loss. The other program works with younger clients and helps acclimate them to every day life and prepares them if they need a job.

"One of the biggest things you run into when you are disabled is getting off the couch," said Banta.

To assist the vision impaired, SAAVI has a fully designed apartment for clients to learn in an actual household setting. It also offers technology assistance, rehabilitation and Braille skills.

Banta will go on hiatus from goalball for a while. She'll practice on her own in gyms such as the one on the campus of the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind. Two or three times a year, the goalball squad will travel to the Paralympic headquarters in Colorado Springs for extensive three-day training sessions.

The idea is to prepare the team for it future trip to China. Perhaps then her medal will come right side up.

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