Eyesight gone, vision intact: Blind soccer player on track to achieve lifetime dream

Ricardo "Ricky" Castaneda (2nd from left) with players Noah Beckman (left) and Cody Kirchner (far right) and assistant coach Fil Wilkinson. (Photo courtesy United States Association of Blind Athletes)

Ricardo “Ricky” Castaneda is proof that a loss of eyesight doesn’t have to mean a loss of vision.

Castaneda’s dream of playing soccer in the Olympics came closer to becoming a reality recently when the 21-year-old Castleberry High School graduate was named to the first USA Blind Soccer Men’s National Team that will begin international competition in 2023. It is the first step on the Fort Worth athlete’s journey to competing at the Los Angeles 2028 Paralympic Games.

The team was announced after a four-day selection camp held Oct. 27-30 in Chula Vista, California. The roster features eight athletes with visual impairments along with two sighted goalkeepers.

The sport of blind soccer has been part of the Paralympic Games since 2004, but the U.S. has never fielded a team. That will change in 2028 when Los Angeles plays host to the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the U.S. will receive an automatic entry into the blind soccer competition as the host country.

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“I am honored to be part of the historic first-ever USA Blind Soccer Men’s National Team and look forward to growing the sport in the U.S. as we begin the road to the LA 2028 Olympic games,” Castaneda said. “My next steps are simple: to put time, sweat, and effort into mastering blind soccer to represent my country the best I possibly can.”

Earlier this year, Castaneda was appointed as an ambassador for the sport of blind soccer by the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). He is one of only six individuals from across the United States to earn that designation.

“Soccer has been a longtime dream of mine to play, since my cousins played indoor soccer their whole life and I wanted to play just like the rest of the kids,” Castaneda said.

Diagnosed with pars planitis at the age of 4, he developed glaucoma and was blind by the age of 15. He’s now 22, and currently studying kinesiology in college with plans to become a physical therapist.

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Castaneda recalled a key moment from his youth that still pushes him toward his goal.

“One of the first times I went to the indoor soccer pitch I was injured by racing my cousin. I could not tell if the glass was an open door or a part of the glass pitch wall,” he said. “This great memory hits me today, because it is an example of what limits I put on myself.”

A few things to know about blind soccer:

  • The ball has sound devices so that players can hear where it is, even when spinning through the air.
  • The pitch (field) is surrounded by rebound panels, which are sometimes designed to create an acoustic echo to help the players know their own position (usually by clicking their fingers) and to locate each other and the ball as it goes in and out of play. The playing area will often be uncovered to improve the acoustics.
  • To try and prevent injuries, players must shout the word ‘voy’ (Spanish for ‘I go’) or ‘go’ before attempting to tackle, so that the player with the ball is aware of their location and can prepare for any contact.
  • If there is a penalty kick, the attacking coach will tap both the vertical posts and crossbar, so that the player knows by sound where to place their penalty.
  • The crowd stays as silent as possible when the ball is in play so that players can hear the ball and communicate with their coaches.

Four of the six ambassadors, including Castaneda, took part in a milestone moment for the sport as the USABA conducted its first blind soccer talent identification camp since being certified by the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee as the sport’s national governing body. Ricky was among 12 athletes who took part in an April camp at the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore.

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“When I heard of the USABA taking charge of making a national team, I jumped at the opportunity and am working my hardest to succeed,” he said. “Ever since I have come back from Baltimore my drive has been heightened to its max capacity and has no intention of slowing down the slightest.”

Castaneda has been personally spreading the word about blind soccer for the past several years.

“Blind soccer is a phenomenal sport – I would say the greatest sport modified for the blind and one of the most entertaining to watch,” he said. “Spreading the word of the sport could have many advantages to those it touches. It could help more blind children be more active physically and socially, help with awareness in blind individuals, and give those who are fully sighted a glimpse of our daily tasks.”

Castaneda said that while he understands he has been given a great opportunity, there is still much hard work ahead.

“Being an athlete has been a satisfying and humbling journey, from traveling the United States to giving those a spark of life because of what they believed I could not do,” he said. “I don’t consider myself an inspiration but a walking example of what a person can conquer in specific crippling circumstances.”