Simpson had a tough go of it in elementary school. As a first-grader, he needed a magnifying glass to read. In second grade, he began learning braille.
Meanwhile, he turned his attention to sports like swimming and running, which didn’t rely on vision as much. But something was missing; he didn’t get the same thrill as he did from baseball.
When he was 10, Simpson discovered a new sport.
At a summer camp, he tried goalball, a sport designed specifically for athletes with vision impairment.
Using ear-hand coordination, goalball players compete in teams of three to throw a ball with bells embedded in it into the opponent’s goal. Players determine their locations using tactile markings on the court. Eyeshades allow partially sighted players to compete on equal footing with blind players.
Simpson was hooked. “I loved the idea that goalball was a sport for people who were blind and that once that blindfold was on and the whistle blew, it was all about you and your abilities matched up with those of your opponent,” he said.
Upon his return from the camp, while sitting at the family dinner table, Simpson made a declaration. “He said, ‘Dad, I’m going to play goalball in the Paralympics one day,’” Hal Simpson recalled.
There was just one problem: There wasn’t a place near the family’s home in Atlanta where Matt could regularly play goalball.
So, through the Georgia Blind Sports Association, Hal Simpson started a goalball program.
Over the next few years, Matt focused on goalball.
When he got to high school, he also tried wrestling. He was on the team all four years, though he didn’t compete in matches until his senior year because he didn’t weigh enough.
That made his connection with goalball all the more special.
“I got to scratch that competitive urge,” said Simpson, who had started using a cane and guide dog toward the end of high school.
Always an excellent student, Simpson elected to attend Washington and Lee University. Throughout his time there, he trained hard – adding 50 pounds to his 5-foot-10 frame – in the hope of making the U.S. national goalball team.
In 2011, he did just that.
Three years later, he won bronze at the world championships. In 2016, he took home silver at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“Sitting there and watching him walk in with the team was a thrill in itself,” Hal Simpson said, “and then a week later seeing him climb up the medal stand and receive a medal. … It was a proud moment.”
Matt Simpson – who had worked as the membership and outreach coordinator for the United States Association of Blind Athletes in Colorado after graduating from W&L in 2012 – later was honored with other Paralympic athletes at the White House.
When he decided to attend UVA Law School, he thought his competitive goalball days might be done. However, he decided to give it one more shot.
After going through tryouts, he earned a roster spot and will be on the U.S. team that will compete in the Parapan American Games beginning Sunday in Peru, seeking to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
U.S. interim head coach Keith Young is glad Simpson is back in the fold. “When I was asked to help put together the team, Matt was one of the main guys I wanted on the team,” he said. “He can play all three positions and it doesn’t matter to him whether he plays three minutes of a game or a whole game. He’s completely focused on how the team performs. He’s a total team player.
“Matt’s one of those guys you love as a coach because you don’t have to tell him anything. And when you do, he gets it the first time.”
Young said Simpson’s uncanny court awareness separates him from other players.
“He’s super-athletic and he can mentally map the court,” he said. “He does things naturally on the court without missing a beat.
“He’s one of those guys who excels at everything he attempts to do. … It’s pretty exceptional.”