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Sarah Leiter uses London legacy to carve out GB goalball career

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Goalball player Sarah Leiter at the University of Cambridge Sports Centre. Picture: Keith Heppell
Goalball player Sarah Leiter at the University of Cambridge Sports Centre. Picture: Keith Heppell

Combining academic studies with sporting demands

Goalball player Sarah Leiter at the University Sports Centre and Gym, University of Cambridge, Philippa Fawcett Dr, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Goalball player Sarah Leiter at the University Sports Centre and Gym, University of Cambridge, Philippa Fawcett Dr, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

‘Inspire a Generation’ was the official slogan for the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics, and it is only now the impact is starting to tell.

In the immediacy of the world in which we live, only one year after the Games had concluded the question marks were already being raised about the legacy.

But from receiving an inspiration to acting upon it and then, finally, delivering is not an overnight occurrence; it takes time and effort.

In 2012, Sarah Leiter was four years in to her Cambridge MB/PhD programme studying medicine and scientific research, and the thought of competing on the international stage in any sport was not even a flicker of the imagination.

Active by nature but left frustrated by some of the difficulties a visual impairment presents when playing ball sports, Leiter had never found her niche. That was until 2012.

“I went to some of the Olympic Games with my parents, and then I watched lots of the Paralympics on TV,” said the 26-year-old.

“I thought ‘I am visually impaired, why not acknowledge that and look for a sport that is designed for people who have a vision problem rather than me trying to fit into a mainstream sport where I’m always at a disadvantage’.

“I like being part of a team, that is always what I’ve done sporting-wise so I looked into it. Blind football doesn’t exist for women, so goalball was really the only thing there was.”

Sometimes fate does just coincide and that was what happened next for Leiter.

Having found her sport of choice, she turned to Google to explore available opportunities, and was referred to Cambridge Dons Goalball Club, which had only been set up by Warren Wilson at the start of that year.

There were only three people in the club, but it did not hold Leiter back. Within six months she had been invited to a talent ID day with Great Britain, and next thing she was on a flight to Poland to represent the England development squad.

And she has been a vital part of the GB set-up ever since.

“This was never part of my life plan,” said the Newnham College student. “I never thought I would get into a highly competitive sport.

“It was a little bit of a surprise, but a very positive one. It’s amazing competing at sport, it’s amazing representing your country.

“You put a lot of hard work and effort into it, but you do it because you have fun.

“While I never thought I would do this with my life, I love it and I’m really grateful. Without the Cambridge club, I still wouldn’t know what goalball is probably, and I’d probably not be doing any sport at all.”

It does feel as if awareness of goalball is growing, and the sport is developing as a whole.

Cambridge Dons are a prime example. From the three people that were there when Leiter first joined, they are now the largest club in the country and have players aged from seven to the mid-50s, from junior to international standard.

And it is easy to see why it proves popular as it is relatively straightforward to learn. However, that masks the skill, technique and tactics required at the highest level.

“The initial bits are easy. The concept is simple – throw a ball then lie down and defend the ball,” said Leiter. “The higher level you play at, things get more and more complex.

“I’m not the most powerful person; I’ve had to carve myself my space on court. I typically play in the centre position, which is more agile, it’s more tactical, it’s a slightly different role on court.

“Over time, I’ve had to explore that role and see that it probably suits my character better than being an attacking player on a wing.”

Those attributes will be to the fore in the next week at the European Goalball Championships in Finland, where Leiter will represent GB.

The target is a top-five finish – they are currently ranked eighth – and earning qualification for the world championships next summer.

But with the athletic demands and the academic expectations, there seems little time for Leiter to take a breath.

That said, she appears to have got the balancing act down to a fine art, winning the national Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme Most Committed Athlete award for the last academic year.

“I think it is always a challenge if you’re competing at a higher level while you’re still at university; how do you divide your time?” she said.

“You don’t want to neglect your studies, but on the other hand you can’t neglect your sport.

“I think it is about striking that balance without missing out on one or the other.

“I was thinking back and actually a lot of my academic training, knowing how to study, knowing how to manage your time, how to manage your emotions and stress as well, I think a lot of that has helped me with my sport.

“The two things complement each other very nicely – also, when you get annoyed with one, you can always concentrate on the other.”

And Leiter has clearly mastered both to great effect in the last five years.

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