Woman of the future
Meet the athlete refusing to let her disability hold her back
Sarah Leiter was born with albinism and has only 10 per cent of normal vision. She juggles crack-of-dawn starts for gruelling training sessions as part of Britain’s goalball squad with hospital shifts as part of her Cambridge degree in medicine and scientific research.
But do not for a moment think that this is a sporting hard-luck story. Instead, five years on from her first experience of goalball – the fast-paced sport for visually impaired athletes that sees competitors attempt to throw the ball into their opponents’ goal – Leiter has just been shortlisted for the prestigious Women of the Future Awards for her contributions to the sport. “I always felt I’d been at a disadvantage in any team sport,” she says. “I can’t see the ball and I’ve got no clue what’s going on half the time.
“I think that disability has been a bigger barrier in my life than being a woman, but I find that we are very lucky with a good set-up in goalball here in the UK. Women are very integrated. In other tournaments, in other countries at the elite level, there’s only men playing.”
Leiter, 26, is not the sort of character who would allow gender stereotyping to block her path. After becoming hooked on goalball at the London 2012 Paralympics, she was scouted for the British squad within six months of taking up the sport at her local club, the Cambridge Dons, while studying an integrated MB/PhD programme in medicine and scientific research at the all-women’s Newnham College at Cambridge University.
Her sight problems force her to use a telescope for lectures and specialist computer software that can read her long pieces of text. She chuckles as she recalls a daily schedule that is exhausting just to listen to.
“I get up about 6.30am, take the bus to the hospital and get going on placement,” she says. “I get boxes of food together to snack on throughout the day and before and after training. So I leave with a huge pile of food, essentially.
“My placements are extremely varied – it might be a day of lectures, I might be shadowing in an intensive care unit, I might go out with an ambulance on a shift or spend some time in a clinic.
“I finish when I finish, then take the bus to the sports centre at the university and do my training – technical stuff, throwing or defence, or in the gym and lifting weights or working on your cardio. Then come home, cook some food and fall in to bed.”
Leiter’s dedication helps to explain why she has been nominated for the WFAs, which celebrate the vast wealth of female talent across all sectors of society and encourage creative collaboration among them. As both sportswoman and scientist, Leiter views them as not simply cause for celebration, but a way to combat gender discrimination that she witnesses often in both her fields.
“Women still face challenges that are different from our male counterparts. It was as a young adult that I realised how unequal some things are. In scientific fields, women are still getting paid less. Why? We are doing the same job. We have to fight so much harder. Every time an application comes around, women don’t apply for higher-ranked jobs.”
In sport, too, much progress still needs to be made – including goalball. “In the UK, pretty much every club now has at least one female in their team. However, in tournaments in other countries at the elite level there’s only men playing. As a woman you might not achieve the same speed, but technically how skilled are you? How tactical are you? How good a defensive player are you?
“Can you lead a team? Can you keep going mentally in difficult situations? I don’t think being female is a disadvantage in any of those situations.”
She has just got back from competing in Finland with the GB team in the European Goalball A League for the first time. The team finished sixth overall and therefore stay in the sport’s top tier, handing them entry for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic qualifiers.
The issue, as ever, is money. With no funding at all from UK Sport – “we are completely dependent on fundraising and some very generous donors” – the British squad have to be creative with their fundraising techniques.
“One of the other girls had the crazy idea to sign us up for the TV show Eggheads,” she says with a laugh. “It was a brilliant day up in Glasgow as part of a fundraiser, but also raising awareness and spreading the word about goalball. I didn’t know what it was until London 2012 and I often wonder how many people there are out there who don’t even know the sport exists and who are missing out on something. It would be great to see more girls getting involved.”
Even here, her competitive streak was irrepressible. “Sadly, we didn’t come first on the show,” she said, “but I did win the science round.”
Role model: Sarah Leiter is committed to a a gruelling schedule of training and study