Most people who are familiar with Eliana Mason know that she’s an elite level athlete and Team USA goalball player training for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. What the average person doesn’t know is that she’s doing all this while also studying in grad school, interning in mental health counseling, teaching goalball to youth at camps and spending time with loved ones.
Originally from Oregon, she now lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana in an apartment only a 10-minute walk from the goalball training center. Her days begin with a healthy breakfast and a walk to the training center, where she and other athletes will do practice, recovery and lunch. Then her afternoons are dedicated to her counseling internship and working with her clients.
Mason, like many goalball players, has visual impairment.
“I was born with congenital cataracts and congenital glaucoma. Both of those are eye conditions that you don’t normally find with a baby, so it was kind of a fluke,” Mason says.
She has no vision in her left eye, and tunnel vision out of her right eye, which means she has no peripheral vision and has to physically turn her head in order to get things into her field of vision. Her acuity is 20/300, meaning what someone with 20/20 vision can see at 300 feet away, she needs to be 20 feet away to see.
She says it was exhausting having to keep up with her visual peers growing up, “The world is not meant for people who are blind. That’s just the reality, we live in a sighted society.”
However, goalball helped her develop confidence with her vision loss and gave her the freedom to just be herself.
“I grew up loving sports in the middle of two brothers. [I’d] try to kind of keep up and compete, but with my vision loss, I couldn’t really do that. . . discovering goalball just changed my life, because I was able to be an athlete first and just compete. It was so empowering and I fell in love with the sport.”
It was a couple of Paralympian goalball athletes who had moved to Oregon when she was 15- years-old who encouraged her to get involved. Once she developed a passion for the sport, nothing would stop her.
“I remember my senior year of high school, I told my parents I wanted to compete for Team USA, and that I would do whatever it took.”
Her parents were accustomed to their daughter’s enthusiasm for trying new things, so they didn’t think much of it at first. She proved she was dedicated when she sacrificed a trip to Greece with her friends in order to compete in a youth world tournament.
Mason chose Portland State College after graduation not just for its educational reputation, but for their goalball practices, and did homework on airplanes on trips to competitions in order to align her education with her sports goals.
Her hard work paid off when she got her chance to compete for Team USA at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“That was just a dream. Walking into opening ceremonies was amazing. Walking into our first game, it was against Brazil so we were definitely not the crowd favorite,” Mason jokes, “but there were thousands of people there and I just remember my legs were shaking.”
The team brought home a bronze, but Mason says it left her with a hunger to win gold.
She made the decision to move to Fort Wayne in 2017, when they got a resident training program, in order to commit her time and energy to the sport.
“To represent Team USA is such a privilege and such an honor,” Mason says, expressing pride that she gets to be a part of breaking down stereotypes and barriers to show that, “even with a vision impairment, you can compete at a high level.”
Growing up with the challenges of vision loss and experiencing firsthand the difference that an adaptive sport made in her life inspired Mason to work at camps training kids and teens in how to play goalball.
“It’s important to me to give back. Like I said, those two individuals who taught me goalball changed my life. And I want to be that role model or that mentor to younger blind youth and to give them the access to opportunity that would change their life.”
Goalball was created after World War II for blinded veterans, and according to Mason, it’s the only Paralympic sport out of the 22 that will be played in Tokyo 2020 that was created for blind athletes.
“I always joke with people that goalball is a sport for blind athletes, but you have to really see it to understand it,” says Mason. “It’s unlike any other sport you’ve heard of.”
For those new to the game, goalball is played on a court about as big as a volleyball court, with three athletes from each team on either side. Players have different levels of visual impairment or blindness, but all must wear blackout eye shades during a game. They are meant to rely on their other senses, feeling strings taped down onto the court for orientation and listening for bells inside the three-pound ball.
The objective is to score the ball into the opposing team’s net by using an underhanded throw, meanwhile the other team tries to defend their net by diving in front of the ball to block it. The game is silent, but whichever team has the ball is allowed to talk to one another briefly so that they can set up their next shot. However, they only have 10 seconds to get rid of the ball.
When the Tokyo 2020 games were pushed back a year, Mason returned to Oregon to be with her family. Quarantine was filled with school, remote internships and home workouts.
“You can’t argue with 365 extra days of training,” She laughs. Despite admitting that it was difficult not getting to compete during the pandemic, she is pouring her energy and focus on being ready for the Paralympics in August.
“I’m gonna go to Tokyo with the confidence that I gave it my 100%.”