Partially-sighted sport saved my life, says player

"Goalball has saved my life" - this is the view of a visually-impaired sportsman set for Great Britain trials.

Not only has it helped Gareth lose two stone (13kg) but it has enabled him to make friends and feel valued as part of a team.

The 17-year-old from Drefach, Carmarthenshire, lives with Bardet-Biedl syndrome, a rare genetic condition which affects one in 100,000 people.

There are now calls to create more Goalball teams around Wales and give more young people with sight loss such as Gareth an opportunity to take part in team sports.

“Goalball has saved my life," Gareth said.

"It’s had a really big impact.

"It’s given me loads of friends, It’s given me something to look forward to, to enjoy when I’ve had a really depressed week.”

Gareth's condition can impact on sight and kidney function, but it also means his body does not know when to stop eating.

It means he struggled with his weight during his younger years, until he made a conscious effort to change that, started running and found Goalball.

As well as having trials for Great Britain, he is also set to take part in a half marathon around the major landmarks in London.

Gareth before he lost weight
Gareth has lost two stone (13kg) since discovering Goalball and running

Goalball was designed specifically for visually-impaired people, and has three people on court in each team at any one time, who all wear eyeshades.

The aim is to defend a large goal area which is 9m (29.5ft) wide, while scoring in the opposition's goal.

"It’s played with a medicine ball that weighs 1.25kg," Gareth explained.

"It’s got two bells in it, so you can hear the ball on court when you’ve got your eyeshades on.

"It packs quite a punch as well.”

However, there are few sides around and Gareth has to travel 57 miles (91km) from his home near Llanelli to Cardiff to play for the South Wales Goalball team.

“The younger players have said that it’s been really life-changing," according to Sarah Jones, one of the volunteers with the team.

"They found other people with sight loss who are the same as them, who they can be friends with, do normal things that normal young people do."

For Helen, Gareth's mother, the change in her son since he discovered the sport has been dramatic.

“Discovering Goalball, has absolutely changed his life, so much. It's unbelievable," she said.

"When you're the only pupil in school with a sight impairment, you can’t take part in team sport, obviously, because you need a team.

"It just gave him a whole new world. I would say that goalball has saved his life.”

Helen volunteers with Eye believe Eye Can - a charity based in Carmarthenshire that supports young people with sight problems.

“Hopefully we can get a team up and running in west Wales as well," she said.

"It'll cover Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire because there's nothing really in this area, especially for this age."

Gareth running
Gareth training for the London Landmarks half marathon

The sport is not currently easily accessible in north Wales either, but that could soon change with plans to create a team in Wrexham.

“Our aim is to hold the first session on 18 May with a further two sessions in June and July," said Goalball UK's development officer Kathryn Fielding.

"Hopefully it will grow."

For many, the sport has been transformative.

Gareth will soon be having trials for the Great Britain Goalball team, but before that, he has a small matter of a half marathon to prepare for.

“I’ll be running the London Landmarks half marathon next month," he said.

"I’m quite excited. I’m a little bit nervous as well because I haven’t run a half marathon before.”