Originally published on USParalympics.org on Sept. 13, 2013

The Tennessee Association of Blind Athletes, also known as Paralympic Sport Club Nashville, is an avenue for individuals with vision impairment to compete in adaptive sports alongside both visually impaired and sighted peers.

Tennessee Association of Blind Athletes
Archery is one of the sports offered by TNABA.

Founded in 1979, TNABA is a chapter of the United States Association of Blind Athletes. The program boasts nationally-competitive alumni such as Jeremy Winters, a paratriathlete and member of the 2012 USA Paratriathlon National Team. Many members, however, simply join the program to learn how to stay active and play sports recreationally while living with visual impairments.

For Carl Hedrick, TNABA’s 2012 Athlete of the Year, the club offers an outlet for natural competitiveness that was difficult to find in traditional high school sports.

Hedrick competes in goalball, a sport developed specifically for blind athletes and TNABA’s most popular activity. For this sport, athletes must roll a 3-lb rubber ball with a bell inside of it toward the opposing team’s goal. Meanwhile, the opponents try to block the shot by making a wall with their bodies across the court.

Because all athletes, regardless of level of sightedness, wear blackened-out goggles or blindfolds, sighted athletes can play alongside vision-impaired athletes on an equal playing field.

“I always wanted to play competitive sports,” Hedrick said. “It’s really great to finally be able to compete even with sighted friends.”

Hedrick and his teammates compete in goalball, which is contested at the Paralympic Games, at least once per year at the regional level and sometimes travel for invitational tournaments.

Other popular activities that the program offers include tandem cycling, golf, “beep” kickball, bowling, track and field, golf and archery. Members can learn to ballroom dance, use the public transit system, play a board game, or even train for a marathon with TNABA’s weekly run/walk program sponsored by Achilles International Nashville chapter.

While TNABA’s original chapter is based out of Nashville, Tenn., its Board of Directors implemented a new chapter in Memphis in the spring of 2013. With a Veterans Affairs Medical Center is based in Memphis, TNABA Executive Director Ricky Jones said one focus for that chapter will be recruiting veterans with blindness.

The kickoff event for the new chapter is set for Sept. 20, and sport programs will be offered beginning in October. The Memphis chapter already has 35 registered members, increasing the total number of TNABA members to around 60.

Additionally, TNABA hosts an annual adaptive sports conference to spread awareness and recruit new members to the program. On Oct. 5, TNABA will host its fourth annual conference, called “Sports After Blindness,” at the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville. The conference offers over 15 different sessions, some informative but many of which offer the chance for attendees to practice adaptive sports themselves.

“What makes this conference so unique is that we have breakout sessions where people can go in and try these activities hands-on,” Jones said. “For someone who is totally sighted, we put a blindfold on them and give them the opportunity to experience it totally blind.”

In addition to the sports TNABA regularly offers, the conference will include judo, tennis and self-defense instruction. Two guest speakers are also set to attend: Will Santi, a former NFL defensive nose tackle who volunteers with TNABA as a run/walk guide, and David Metter, the National Blind Golf Champion.  Frank Alexander, the former Athletic Director of the Tennessee School for the Blind and a wrestling coach, will be honored as a distinguished guest.

“It’s a day-long Paralympic experience,” Jones said. “We use it as a platform for educating people around the state, but we also use it to get a feel for what people are interested in and what programs we might add.”

Hedrick, who will be attending the conference and demonstrating various sports as needed, said one benefit of the conference each year is to draw donors, especially since the staff is solely volunteer and equipment and travel fees are funded through donations.

“The more people know, the more people can reach out,” Hedrick said. “We have gotten some equipment donated without specifically asking for it because we had some recognition from the community, and we have gotten some significant donations that have given us the chance to go to some of these tournaments.”

The annual conference, however, is not the only time TNABA engages with the community. Throughout the year, TNABA board members and athletes participate in outreach programs, in which they visit public schools and businesses to discuss and demonstrate staying active with blindness.

“We demonstrate an adaptive sport, usually goalball or beep kickball, and we also speak to physical education teachers to help students with visual disability and those without,” Jones said. “When we go into businesses, we also do sensitivity training for people with disabilities.”