Of God and goalball
Michael Sharkey is visually impaired, but this summer he’ll be representing Great Britain in the little-known game of goalball. He talks to Chine Mbubaegbu about faith, failure and the Paralympics.
Ever heard of goalball? Neither had I. It’s one of the less-well-known sports that will form part of the Paralympic Games in a few weeks’ time. This game for visually impaired people is fast-paced and heroic. The idea of the game is that the players are totally reliant on their ability to orientate themselves around the court, track where the ball is, and get it into the opposing team’s net, while defending their own – mainly by hurling your body in front of the ball.
Michael Sharkey is a 27-year-old Christian who has a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. He started playing the game 11 years ago while at a boarding school for the visually impaired; and this summer he will be representing Team GB in the Games. “I love goalball. I love its fast pace and that you have to be totally reliant on your reflexes and all the other senses apart from your sight.” As well as donning elbow and kneepads, a goalball player’s equipment includes eyeshades which mean none of the players – including those who have some sight – can see anything. “I love the fact that it’s a team sport and that we can all compete on an equal footing,” says Michael.
Goalball: the rules
A game is played by two teams of three players with a maximum of three substitutes on each team. The game is
conducted on the floor of a gymnasium within a rectangular court which is divided into two halves by a centre line. Goals
are erected at either end. The game is to be played with a bell ball. The object of the game is for each team to roll the ball
across the opponent’s goal line while the other team attempts to prevent this from happening.
Taken from the International Blind Sport Federation
Very few of us will get the opportunity to represent our country at doing the thing we love most. But with the bright lights of the Paralympics comes an enormous amount of pressure. “We train a lot of weekends together as a squad. We have to eat the right foods, prepare mentally and physically. I’ve also never played in front of more than 200 people before because the sport is so unknown, but during The Games we’ll be playing in a 7,000-seater.”
But for Michael, a devoted Christian who attends a Newfrontiers church in Uxbridge, the spiritual preparation is the most important. “In sport, competitiveness and performance mean everything. But that’s the total opposite of our Christian beliefs which show us that it doesn’t matter how we perform, there’s salvation for everyone.
“In this place of competitiveness, however, it’s quite hard to stay focused on God. If I’m spending more time being able to pray or study, or am able to go to house group then it makes it easier and is a helpful reminder of what’s most important. When I’m away a lot, I miss out on church and it becomes something that I have to be self-disciplined about. I try to remember that I’m not doing things in my own strength, but in God’s. I want to use everything I do to glorify God as much as possible. Some people can sing beautifully; some can write beautiful poetry. I can throw a goalball very hard.”
But the better you are at something, the higher the stakes are for failure. Like all the athletes heading to London 2012, Michael will have to deal with the prospect of not doing very well and letting the country down. But he doesn’t see it like that. “I have had plenty of practice at dealing with failure. There were a few years where we pretty much lost every game and didn’t know whether we would continue. It helps when I understand that there’s a bigger picture – a higher purpose to things. Dealing with bad results or not performing well is definitely easier if you give it over to God.”
What may be less easy, from the outside looking in, is how Michael deals with relating his disability to his faith. “My condition – retinitis pigmentosa – is such that the more light there is, the better I can see. In the daytime and in sunshine I can see signs and shops. But at night I can’t see anything other than street lights. I expect that my sight will have gone completely by the time I’m 40.”
Rather than spend each day in utter despair at the prospect of going completely blind in a decade’s time, Michael leads a full and active life. When away from the goalball court, he works as a paediatric physiotherapist and was married just under a year ago. But he admits that he hasn’t always been as comfortable with his situation as he is now.
“When I was 13, I made a concerted effort to pray to have my eyesight healed. Obviously it didn’t work, but it had a great affect on me. I have learnt to trust that God has provided me with the things I have needed rather than what I have wanted – and better things have come of it.
“If I had sight, then I wouldn’t be going to the Paralympics. If I had sight then I wouldn’t have met my wife [She attended the same school for the visually impaired]. Me having a visual impairment can also be an encouragement to other people – though some might take this as condescending. But I’ve found that if others have truly been encouraged then that’s a good thing. I think my impairment helps other people to get a perspective on their own troubles sometimes.
“I’m glad I didn’t get my sight back. I think God has been really good to me and you can see all the blessings. Who knows, maybe I will be healed or cured with all the advancements in medicine taking place.”
Michael is buzzing at the opportunity he has to represent his country in the Paralympics, and will also be cheering his sister Anna – a member of Team GB’s women’s goalball squad. “It’s a great time to be involved. There are many fantastic athletes who have made their marks on history; but not many of them have had the opportunity to do it in their own country. I’m hoping the home support will be worth a goal or two in each game.”
But it’s also a great opportunity for the UK Church to open its doors. “In a few weeks’ time, there’s going to be a million people in London who aren’t normally in London. There’s going to be an opportunity to meet people from different cultures and backgrounds, who will relish the opportunity to take in some of the British culture. This is an opportunity for the Church to actually get out there and show how wonderful the grace of God is. And we can do that through serving people.”
The National Portrait Gallery/BT Road to 2012 project is capturing the journey towards the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and, working with internationally-renowned photographers, is creating a lasting record of the people who are contributing to these exciting events. From world-class athletes and those working behind the scenes, to people living and working in the host boroughs for the 2012 Games, the project celebrates stories of inspirational achievement. roadto2012.npg.org.uk