Whitney Bogart (left) and Amy Kneebone could not quite keep the ball from rolling past the goal line in Canada’s overtime defeat to Finland in the quarter-finals of the London 2012 Paralympic Games goalball competition. Nancy Morin (9) is also pictured. Photo: Ian Ewing
By Dan Plouffe
LONDON – The tension in the Copper Box gymnasium was only elevated by the fact their sport must be played in complete silence so the players with visual impairments can hear the small bell ring inside the ball when it’s rolled.
Tied in the final moments, the Ottawa-based Canadian women’s goalball team were involved in similar high-stakes matches on back-to-back days at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. But the emotions they felt when the deciding goals were scored were polar opposites.
The first day, it was elation.
Prior to the Tuesday, Sept. 4 contest, the Canadians had dropped their first game of the tournament 2-1 to Sweden, but rebounded to knock off Australia 3-1, and then Japan 2-1. A victory over the U.S. would give them first place in their pool – otherwise it was likely they’d face powerhouse China in the playoff round.
The game was scoreless the whole way through, but with under two seconds left, Nancy Morin fired a shot home down the sideline to give Canada the 1-0 victory.
“The Americans – we always play a good game against them,” noted a beaming Amy Kneebone, Canada’s top scorer at the tournament with four goals. “It was unbelievable. I’m speechless from it. Scoring with two seconds left, you can’t do anything else but smile.”
The next day, it was crushing despair.
Whitney Bogart scored midway through the second half to give Canada a 1-0 advantage in their quarter-final elimination match against Finland, but this time it was their opponents that scored a late marker.
In “golden goal” overtime (as they call it in Britain), Katja Heikkinen bounced a shot just above Kneebone, who got a piece of the ball but neither she or her teammates could get to the ball quickly enough to stop it from going over the goal line.
It was the abrupt end to the Canadians’ podium dreams, after training together daily in Ottawa for the majority of 2012 – the first time the team has ever been able to centralize leading up to a Paralympic Games, which was made possible thanks to Own The Podium funding.
“It was really tough,” said coach Janice Dawson, adding that her girls played great throughout the event. “I thought they did really well. We had a bit of shaky start but we just got stronger as we went on.
“Of course I think we deserved a better fate. The girls trained so hard and they wanted it so badly, but the same can be said for any team that’s here.”
Whether the squad will return to Ottawa as a group any time soon is unclear. The immediate plan was for everyone to go home after the Games, take time to regroup and plan for the future.
Team members Kneebone, Bogart, Jill MacSween and Cassie Orgeles all moved to Ottawa at various times in recent years before the full team came to town and made Algonquin College their home base. Dawson, meanwhile, was born and raised in the capital before pursuing high-performance long-track speed skating in Calgary, where she now lives.
Lasting Paralympic memories
Living in close quarters at the Athletes Village was nothing new for the team, which also included Longeuil, Que’s Morin and Penticton, B.C.’s Ashlie Andrews. Five of the six team members lived together in the same apartment building at Prince of Wales and Meadowlands, while Orgeles was less than two blocks away.
“We spent a lot of time together,” Bogart smiled, noting most of their downtime at the Paralympics was spent in their rooms, catching up on TV shows such as Big Brother and Hell’s Kitchen. “We were watching funny movies to pass the time and stay relaxed.”
March-in for Opening Ceremonies was a huge highlight for the players, along with getting to perform in front of a close-to-soldout crowd larger than 80 – the amount Kneebone estimated was their previous non-Paralympics high. Having friends and family in the stands was the most special part in her view.
“It was the first time they’ve really got to see us play internationally, so I’m really happy we were able to put a show on for them,” noted the 22-year-old.
There was unquestionably a family feel to the tight-knit group. And now for two of the players, they will soon be family for real. Bogart’s brother proposed to Kneebone shortly before they took off for London, and the couple are now engaged to be married, although a date has yet to be established.
“While we’re here, we’re focused on goalball,” Bogart highlighted. “But as soon as we’re done, we get to plan a wedding!”
Played in a gymnasium by athletes with visual impairments (who wear blinders to eliminate whatever vision they do have), and using a ball with bells inside, each team has three players on the court at a time. The aim is to score by rolling the ball into the opposition’s goal, while the opposition attempts to block the ball with their bodies.