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Eliana Mason goes for gold at Paralympic Games in Rio

Beaverton native playing for U.S. women's goalball team at Paralympic Games


TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Eliana Mason demonstrates how to play goalball.Kevin Mason will be beaming with pride when his “favorite” daughter Eliana takes to the goalball court at the 2016 Paralympics Games in Rio de Janeiro.

But the Beaverton father won’t be cheering loudly from the sidelines the way he does when his other children — both boys — play traditional sports.

That’s because competitors in the little-known sport of goalball play completely blind, so the audience keeps quiet so players can hear the ball coming at them. The idea is to prevent the other team from scoring by throwing their bodies in front of the ball.

And Beaverton native Eliana Mason is one of the best on the U.S. team at keeping other goalball players from scoring.

Mason, who turns 21 on Thursday while beginning her journey to the Paralympic Games, is a rising star in a sport invented after World War II to provide recreation and competition for people who are blind or have limited sight.

Mason was born with congenital cataracts that had to be surgically removed but already had prevented her lenses from fully developing. While lens transplants are an option for some, specialists have told her that it remains a risky procedure in her case, although medical advances may one day allow it.

She has extremely limited vision in her right eye — even with powerful glasses, she must bump the type size way up on her smart phone to get a number — and her left eye only registers light.

Mason comes from an athletic family and is interested in sports, but traditional games with balls were out of the question due to her lack of vision. She did cheerleading, ran track and for a time, loved gymnastics.

“I’m too tall for gymnastics,” said Mason, listed at 5-foot-6 on the team roster. “Those dreams died quickly.”

But then she learned about goalball during a special sports camp held at the Washington State School for the Blind.

“I came home from camp trying to tell my parents about the sport and they were like, ‘What are you talking about?’”TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Eliana Mason, a 2013 graduate of International School of Beaverton and a senior psychology major at Portland State University, will be heading to Rio to participate in the Paralympic Games for the U.S. Womens Goalball team.

“She’s always been really competitive, but anything with a ball was something she couldn’t do,” said Kevin Mason, who will fly to Rio to watch his daughter compete. “She’s really poured her heart into this thing.”

Eliana Mason soon met Jen Armbruster, team captain of the U.S. Women’s Goalball team and an employee at Portland State University, which has become a hot spot for U.S. goalball with the arrival of Armbruster and her wife, Aysa Miller.

With the encouragement of Armbruster, who will compete in her seventh Paralympics this year, Mason eventually grew to love the strategy and physicality of goalball. Her parents, including mother Joanna, helped her travel across the United States to attend tournaments while Team USA and the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes supported international competitions.

“I think I was just drawn to it because vision was not an element. I felt like I could excel and not always compensate for the vision loss,” she said. “Instead of hand-eye coordination, it’s hand-ear coordination.”

Goalball is played on a court about the size of a volleyball court, and visually impaired players still wear soft masks to negate any visual advantage that one player might have over another.

Teams score by bouncing a heavy, basketball-sized ball equipped with bells past the defenders, adhering to rules that require certain bounce patterns to give opponents the potential to estimate the ball’s path. The three players on the court defend their own goal — which stretches across the entire back of the court — by tracking its sound and blocking it with any part of their body.

“If the ball’s not hitting you or a teammate, it’s probably going in the goal,” said Mason, who plays backup to the team’s starting center, the most defensive-oriented position, one that takes the brunt of hits from a three-pound orb whizzing at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. She also has been developing offensive throws she hopes to unleash in Rio.

“You want to get hit,” said Mason, who sports a few bruises and floor burns from recent practices despite the protective gear they wear. “It’s like reverse dodgeball.”

People have described the defensive side of goalball as resembling a rugby scrum, but Mason said she and her teammates are like “soccer goalies and you do whatever it takes to block it,” she said. “We’re all always making a play on the ball.”

Mason said that new spectators often don’t appreciate the difficulty of goalball, but they would if they tried it wearing the regulation mask.

“You want to meet that ball. You don’t want to be laying there when it hits you,” she said. “It takes a lot of practice and skills to get the correct timing.”

While still a student at the International School of Beaverton, where she graduated in 2013, Mason started gaining the skills to compete nationally and internationally at the youth level.

While a PSU student majoring in psychology and training on campus, Mason secured a spot on the six-member U.S. Women’s Goalball National Team.

That team claimed the gold medal at the 2014 World Championships to earn an automatic berth to Rio. The team hopes to erase the lingering disappointment of a last-place finish at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, a let-down after a gold medal performance four years before that in Beijing. (The Paralympic Games follow on the heels of the Olympic Games in the same host cities.)

Mason is one of the reasons the U.S. team has high hopes in Rio.

“She’s young, she’s driven, she’s worked hard to prove herself,” said Armbruster, whose father is the team’s head coach. “She’s playing as solid defensively as anybody right now.”

Armbruster said Mason and two young teammates who comprise half the team, along with three veteran players, are the future of U.S. goalball.

“It’s great to see that talent in someone so young,” she said.

Mason plans to keep competing at least through the Tokyo Games in 2020, but for now, her goals are firmly rooted in Rio.

“To be on the medal stand would be a dream come true,” she said. “I’ve never seen us so talented and focused.”