Program Brings Community to the Oval
By Pat Lee
Harry Nickerson has been in gymnastics since he was a toddler, but after trying goalball at age nine, it quickly became his favourite athletic activity. Now 14, the Halifax teenager has become so proficient at the sport, designed for those with visual impairments, that he routinely plays with adults and on teams representing Nova Scotia at national events. In 2022, he played on the Nova Scotia team that took a bronze medal at the Nova Scotia Goalball tournament held in Halifax. The winger said while he likes the team aspect of the sport, he particularly loves putting numbers on the board. “I love scoring goals,” he said. Nickerson’s sight is affected by retinitis pigmentosa, and he describes his vision as like looking through a mail slot. Peter Parsons, chair of Blind Sports Nova Scotia, is equally enthusiastic about goalball, also having discovered it after being involved in other activities. Unlike Harry, though, he jumped in at 28 and is now in his 40s. “I played a lot of sports growing up even with my visual impairment,” Parsons said. “But the thing I love about goalball is it’s on an equal playing field. I wouldn’t be any better if I had good vision, which for all the other sports I’ve played … I would have been so much better if I could see normally, or at least have more than 10 per cent of my vision.” Goalball, played on a volleyball court with nets spanning the width of the court at either end, has three players aside trying to toss a ball about the size of a basketball into the opposing net. Players, who have varying degrees of visual impairment, all wear eye covers to make it equal. A bell inside the ball helps them track its location and the court’s edges are marked with tape and string. “It’s a good feeling to know I could take it as far as I could take it … with my vision not being a factor,” said Parsons, who has Stargardt disease, a form of macular degeneration that affects the detail in his central vision. Women’s team player Jennie Bovard was also an adult when she first tried the sport, having initially rebuffed it as a teenager. Now 37, she’s been asked to vie for a spot on the national team, thanks to a silver medal performance by Nova Scotia at last May’s nationals in Ottawa – the highest finish ever for a provincial women’s team. “That was a proud moment for me,” she said of the invitation to try out. Bovard, who said she was into “outdoorsy stuff” before getting involved in goalball, has about five to 10 per cent vision due to albinism. Both Parsons and Bovard say the challenge is to grow interest in the sport, which due to its nature will always have a small pool of players to draw from. Blind Sports Nova Scotia has no paid staff, and Parsons said it’s hard to find volunteers to help grow the sport, which is currently only played in Halifax at the George Dixon Centre. “It’s hard to sustain any programs outside of Halifax,” Parsons said. “That being said, our numbers in Nova Scotia are the highest per capita (in the country).” About six competitive men’s players, including three juniors under 21, are playing for Nova Scotia right now and 10 or 12 are playing goalball recreationally. Bovard said the women’s program is in a transitional period as players move on to other things. Despite the challenges, Parsons said the province punches well above its weight in the sport, especially with the junior men, who, along with the junior women, were national champions in 2019. “We have the best young men’s players in the country,” he said. “Our guys are pretty big favourites to win.” The Emera Oval on the Halifax Commons is less than a 20-minute walk from the George Dixon Centre in the North End, but the skating track hasn’t always felt accessible to local kids and families. That’s something the Community Skate at the Oval program is working to change. The program, launched last year, grew out of a long-standing partnership between the Speedy Kids Oval Program and the Dixon Centre, a community recreation facility that primarily serves African Nova Scotians and newcomers in the Gottingen Street-Uniacke Square area. The Dixon Centre was already running an inline skate drop-in program in its gym, with equipment that Speedy Kids secured through a grant. As the drop-in grew, drawing 20 to 30 kids each week, Speedy Kids president Lisa Gannett and Community Recreation Coordinator David (Mookie) Magloir figured the next step was to get the kids who were really interested to try the Oval. A grant from Sport Canada’s Community Sport for All Initiative helped hire three young leaders to support the program, which includes providing a snack and walking participants to and from the Oval. Building that piece in made the program more accessible, Magloir says. “That was the big difference, when we were able to offer parents the peace of mind that you don’t have to try to get your kids to the Oval,” he says. “The simplest thing they need to do is get their kids to the Dixon, knowing there’s someone taking care of them and taking them to the Oval and back.” They also had the program flyer translated into Arabic, so newcomer families would have easier access to information. Still, Gannett and Magloir were unprepared for how popular the program would be. “We thought if we got eight kids, maybe 10, that would be pretty good,” Gannett says. “We got 40.” Word of mouth spread fast, and entire friend or sibling groups showed. Many went on to take part in Speedy Kids’ Meltdown at the Oval timed race. Helping make the competitive side of sport accessible is part of Speedy Kids’ mission, Gannett says. They run another free after-school program, and even their club fees are low-cost, ranging from $35 to $75 for the winter season, depending on ice time. “Making skating accessible is part of our constitution. We’re not the club we want to be if only the kids from middleclass, achievement-oriented families are going to Canada Games,” she says. “It’s not that we’re performanceoriented; we’re equity-oriented. Kids just want to go fast and be with their friends. The joy and smiles we see there when kids come out for a morning of racing is contagious.” Magloir sees a program like the Community Skate at the Oval as a bridge-builder to help kids understand that skating is for them, including competition if they want to pursue it. “If you don’t see your parents or older siblings doing a sport, maybe it’s something you don’t even think about,” he says. “Now they’re seeing there are other opportunities.” The program won a Sport Makes a Difference Award at the Support4Sport Awards in June. Magloir and Gannett say they’d like to find sustainable funding sources so they can continue to help the Oval feel like home for more North End families.