`She's so proud of herself'

AT PLAY

7-year-old girl, born blind, learns to play soccer with the help of new technology

Special Olympics

September 20, 2006|By JEFF SEIDEL | JEFF SEIDEL,Special to The Sun

The shot was an easy one, from right in front. Rachael Tippett, 7, kicked the ball into the open net, heard the cheers and thrust her arms up in celebration.

Truthfully, the goal didn't have much meaning -- it came during a drill. But nobody was about to point that out to Rachael.

The first completely blind member of Special Olympics Anne Arundel County's soccer program, she scored her goal Monday with the help of new technology.

Rachael, of Crofton, is one of about 80 children and adults with disabilities in the program, which plays at Ruth Parker Eason School in Millersville on Monday nights during the fall. She joined this month and fell in love with soccer.

"I like kicking the ball," she said. "I'm learning to dribble and kick it."

Gregg Meade, the Anne Arundel County area director of Special Olympics, bought a "beeper ball" and another that jingles like sleigh bells for people with visual impairments to hear.

The coaches also have a plain beeper to help Rachael find the right place to kick the ball. One of the program's coaches stands behind the goal with a beeper in hand, and Rachael follows that sound to determine where to kick the ball.

She's also learning how to put her foot on top of the ball without falling.

"It's teaching her balance," said Rachael's mother, Angie Tippett. "The first time she came here, she couldn't put her foot on the ball. But now she can do it the right way."

Rachael's sight problems can be traced to her birth at 24 weeks. She weighed just 1.3 pounds and was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity. In other words, her retinas never properly developed.

Her twin sister, Reanne, who weighed in at 1.4 pounds, had normal vision.

Today, both girls are in the second grade at Crofton Elementary School. Reanne has also caught the soccer bug, and is in her first year with the Queen Anne's Football Club.

The Special Olympics soccer program runs from Aug. 28 to Oct. 28, culminating at the state Special Olympic Games. Coaches and teachers work every Monday night to teach the participants how to play the game and work as a team so they can play in that event.

"It's a terrific program," Meade said. "It helps them develop team [skills] and develop friendships with each other and sportsmanship. They learn to depend on each other, and the skills they learn here they can take to the outside world."

Coaches split the players into two groups based upon abilities, not age. The coaches then teach the fundamentals of the game. The players practice shooting, passing and playing defense.

On Monday, Rachael was proud that she had learned to balance herself with one foot on top of the ball. She and the coaches also realized that Rachael fared better by using just one beeping technology at a time -- the competing sounds seemed a bit confusing.

But the look on Rachael's face when scoring that goal showed why she will keep coming back to learn more about soccer.

"It's all she talks about," Angie Tippett said with a smile. "She's so proud of herself."

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