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Driving force Warren Wilson makes Cambridge Dons a dominant goalball power

Warren Wilson in action for Cambridge Dons. Picture: Keith Heppell
Warren Wilson in action for Cambridge Dons. Picture: Keith Heppell

"As I look back on the time I’ve spent with the goalball team and with the sport in general, I would say it’s been incredibly essential for me in terms of adapting to living with a visual impairment and just seeing other young people going around and doing things.”

Reflecting on the past eight years of Cambridge Dons Goalball Club, Warren Wilson does not even hint at the impact that he has had on so many other people.

Even getting the 29-year-old to agree to an interview was difficult, it was not that there was a reluctance on his part, more that he was trying to push others forward.

The suggestion was to speak to GB goalball player Sarah Leiter, a fellow member of Cambridge Dons, but she was eager for Wilson to take the spotlight.

He is such a pivotal part of the club, in every sense, but has a selfless way of making others the focal point. However, the Dons would probably not exist without Wilson.

With the support of Steve Morley and Robyn Speed at Cambridge City Council, and others including Alan Chamley, it was decided to set up a goalball club in January 2012.

Chamley had prior experience with a visually-impaired sports team as he ran the Eastern Vipers cricket team, and was joined in supporting the venture by his son Stuart, and a coach called Tyler Gilkes was funded by the city council.

Wilson was one of the founding members, he is the only one still with the Dons, and, in his own words it was a “very humble beginning” with friends and family, not necessarily visually impaired, roped in, including then girlfriend Charlotte Hewer.

His initial idea had been to start a visually impaired football team in Cambridge, but the city council had suggested goalball and a couple of taster sessions later, the seed had been sown.

The eagerness to be involved in sport had come from Wilson losing his sight through a rare genetic condition when he was 19, in 2009.

Warren Wilson in action for Cambridge Dons. Picture: Keith Heppell
Warren Wilson in action for Cambridge Dons. Picture: Keith Heppell

“It was something that my family didn’t really know much about, it’s a very rare condition and it was just while I was doing my A-level exams at Long Road Sixth Form College,” he says.

“My sight was deteriorating and luckily I had just enough sight to finish writing my last one and then also, lucky is how you could look at it, that I had Addenbrooke’s just across the road.

“I made use of their facilities while my sight was deteriorating. It was an unusual way to do your A-level exams, I think.”

Wilson is registered blind and has low contrast across his field of vision. He has light perception across most of his field of vision, except for a little bit on his left eye, and cannot see colours properly, just shapes and shadows.

He cannot see distance very well, and the contrast is affected so it is quite a severe level of sight to lose.

“I wasn’t the most sporty person, but the attitude I had was ‘let’s give sport a go now I can’t see what I’m doing very well!” jokes Wilson.

A difficulty in handling the competitive side of sport had pushed Wilson away from sport as a teenager. “I tended to crumble under the pressure and the competition,” he says.

But those inhibitions were cast aside.

“People suggested sports to me but I said no as I was never really into sport,” Wilson explains.

“But as I started going on and doing more things, like learning how to use the computer, the cane, getting out and about using buses and trains, going to university, I thought there was so much you
can do.

“There was so much adapted out there for a visual impairment so I thought let’s see how sport works.”

Warren Wilson in action for Cambridge Dons. Picture: Keith Heppell
Warren Wilson in action for Cambridge Dons. Picture: Keith Heppell

That approach, together with just wanting to stay fit is what took him first to football, before settling on goalball, and so many people will be grateful that he did.

Leiter was one of the first people to join the club after it had been set up, and along with two other players helped give it a good kick on.

From the six at the launch as founding members, they have now got 30, in a sport that is only three-a-side.

The Dons have three novice teams, two intermediate teams and an elite team, they have helped developed Leiter and Filmon Eyassu to represent GB, won elite level competitions, were second in the Goalball Cup and are one of the biggest teams in the country.

“I never knew it would go on to become this big really, but it’s fantastic that it has. I’m really pleased,” says Wilson.

“As I look back, I’ve gone through so many changes in my personal life during the time I’ve been playing goalball, and being involved with the Cambridge goalball team’s been a constant.

“It’s something I’m very passionate about and it’s a team that means a lot to me. It might just be a local amateur sports club but the bond we have within the team is strong. It’s a community as much as it is a sports club. It’s a group of people who meet up on a regular basis, and it becomes far more than a sports club quite easily.”

Looking to the future, Wilson, who works with the RNIB, hopes the Dons’ success continues and they can remain sustainable for the long term.

“I would love it to continue for as long as there is a need for it and that goalball is going,” he adds.

“I think for as long as possible, bringing people into sport, and bringing a community of like-minded people together – that’s the key for the club.”

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