An Era Closes, But Belles Will Chime Again

Australia’s women’s goalball team, a popular fixture at the past three Paralympic Games, have fallen short in their courageous bid to qualify for Paris 2024.

Competing at the Asia Pacific Championships in China last week, the Belles – Raissa Martin, Brodie Benson, Nikita Grosser, Jessica Clark and Molly Smith – poured everything into their round robin clashes, finishing with a win, a draw and two losses. They were then knocked out by eventual gold medallists Japan and succumbed to Korea 4-3 in overtime in the bronze medal match.

“We played our hearts out, we played without fear,” said Martin, who represented Australia at the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

“We worked really well as a team on and off the court. We went in knowing what we wanted to do and feeling competitive against the teams we were going to play. We just couldn’t get there.”

The men’s side, the Aussie Storm, also showed great spirit in China but didn’t qualify for Paris, extending Australian men’s goalball’s Games absence since the host allocation for Sydney 2000.

For Martin, the emotion of missing out this time had a very personal touch as her late mother was French and Martin had wanted so badly to play in Paris.

“I’m devastated,” she said. “I started in the Belles’ squad in 2013, it’s been 10 years and I fought my butt off to get into those teams. I’m in a position now where I’m leading the girls but we haven’t been able to get there and that’s really upsetting.”

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The sadness is real, but perspective suggests the performances of Australia’s women goalballers over the past decade have been exceptional. After qualifying for London 2012, ending a 16-year drought, a young and determined Belles side pushed eventual gold medallists Japan and bronze medallists Sweden all the way. Three players – Meica Christensen, Jenny Blow and Tyan Taylor – would form the backbone of the team for years ahead.

At Rio 2016, after a late call-up when Russia was disqualified, the Belles nearly matched it with silver medallists China and snatched a draw with Ukraine.

The breakthrough came at Tokyo 2020 when the Belles, including current players Martin and Benson, beat Canada 4-3 before crushing the then-world champions representing the Russian Paralympic Committee 4-1 to advance to a historic quarter final. It set off a wave of public excitement that brought unprecedented attention to sport for people with a vision impairment.

The Belles performed admirably in that quarter final, going down 10-6 to Turkey, who days later secured their second consecutive Paralympic gold medal.

Over that time, the standard of world goalball has risen substantially, while the number of teams to contest the Paralympics has been reduced from 10 in Tokyo to eight in Paris. For Australia, the pathway to Paris was particularly difficult.

“Our region has become probably the strongest in the world,” Martin said.

“Asia has become dominant in goalball, in both men’s and women’s. They’ve got three teams in each who’ve made the top eight and qualified for the Paralympics (China, Japan and Iran in the men’s and South Korea, China and Japan in the women’s) – and that’s without the region getting the host spot.

“We just don’t have the depth of experience we need and we don’t have enough competition because our isolation makes it difficult to play regularly.

“It’s very hard with little funding, which is just the reality for us at the moment, as it is for a number of sports.”

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Those challenges may not ease for some time. But, at 32, Martin plans to keep playing, saying the game is “really important to me, I love goalball so much”. Benson is just 25 and has an impressive wealth of experience, while Clark, Grosser and Smith have all had success at junior international level. Another developing player, Clare Whelan, was selected for the Asia Pacific Championships but was unable to travel.

Additionally, the team has benefited from the ongoing involvement of Christensen, now Meica Horsburgh, as an assistant coach to Simon Smith, while physiotherapist and retired Winter Paralympian Melissa Perrine was a popular addition for the China trip.

“A special shout-out to Mel,” Martin said. “She’s a gun and so great to work with. Alongside Meica, it’s so good to have a vision impairment represented on our staff. Mel’s a great physio and also a great mentor.”

By: David Sygall, Paralympics Australia
Posted: 27 November 2023
Image: Aussie Belles via Facebook