JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It took one collision on the basketball court to let Daryl Walker know that he was playing the wrong sport.
He’s been playing the one that he’s been comfortable with ever since, and it continues to take Walker places.
The next stop for Walker, 39, in the sport of goalball will take him to the Paralympics in Tokyo this fall as a member of Team USA. This will be Walker’s third trip to the Games. His team opens play Aug. 26 against Brazil.
The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind graduate has albinism, a genetic condition “that reduces the amount of melanin pigment formed in the skin, hair and/or eyes,” according to the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation.
Eye problems due to pigmentation loss in the eyes can cause eye problems and light sensitivity. That leads to photophobia, which is a fear of or an extreme sensitivity to light.
With goalball, that photophobia goes away.
Athletes slip on blackout shades or goggles that makes everything dark. The sound of the bells inside the ball make noise when it moves and athletes respond to the sound and try and block the ball from reaching the goal.
“So I’m just like, what am I going to do, I really want to do some athletic stuff like that. And that’s when, like I said, goalball, it’s indoors, no sunscreen required, dark-out eye shades, photophobia doesn’t exist, boom, perfect, found my sport, based upon my albinism.”
Goalball was never supposed to be Walker’s sport. Basketball was.
Walker grew up with a basketball hoop in his front yard and got in as much of the sport as he could. He was involved in other sports, too, like cross country and taekwondo, but basketball was always Walker’s first love.
“It wasn’t until like my senior year that I had to accept that basketball wasn’t going to be for me,” Walker said. “… I don’t use a cane, I don’t use a seeing eye dog, you know, sure it’s limited, but I still got the game I still got the physicality, I can do this.”
Walker said during a basketball game in his senior year at FSDB, he was in mid-stride when he ran into an opponent and sent him flying on the court. The impact was enough for Walker to scrutinize his future playing that sport. He was worried about another collision and the possibility that someone could get hurt.
“At that moment, I was just kind of like, I probably should not be playing basketball right now,” he said. “This is just getting more and more dangerous. And ever since that point I’ve been super paranoid that something like that could happen again, if not worse.”
Walker knew of goalball from his time at FSDB. The sport is huge in the blind community and at the school itself. Former FSDB teacher Tom Parrigin made goalball a priority at the school and served as the Paralympics national coach five times.
Walker said that he thought the sport was odd when he was first introduced to it in the mid-1990s but still dabbled in it. After he graduated, a former FSDB athlete, Eddie Munro, got in touch with Walker and asked him to consider joining him on a Florida goalball team. Walker gave that a shot and it led to Parrigin asking him to try out for the national team in early 2003.
Walker said that he picked up quite a bit from that national tryout and dedicated himself to working on getting better at it. Five months after that audition, Walker was selected to the national team.
Walker went to the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008 and then won a silver in the 2016 Games in Rio. He said that this year’s team is special.
“The times in the past were good, they had their moments and they did a lot of good in a lot of different ways and stuff like that. This is like the first team now that I’ve been on with goalball, but also been on, period, that I feel like you know it’s a family, it’s a strong support system,” Walker said. “The team that we have is very athletic, very explosive. Group of guys with great personalities and whatnot, on and off the court, and we just gel, we just gel really well.”