Anna Tipton (nee Sharkey) is a former Great Britain goalball athlete. Her career spanned eight European Championships, two World Championships, and one home Paralympics in 2012, where Anna was the highest scorer in goalball for Team GB. Born with a retina cell disorder and coming to faith as a teenager, we chatted to Anna about finding goalball, coming to Christ, and the joy of bringing her sport and faith together.
Believe it or not, Anna Tipton was not a sporty kid. When we think of elite sportspeople, we might imagine childhoods full of backyard hat tricks, glistening trophy shelves and performance pathways.
But as a child with tunnel vision, Anna found sport a nightmare.
“The thing about growing up with a visual impairment is that sport is really challenging. You can't see the ball necessarily and you can't necessarily see your teammates. You're often the weakest link on a team. So it made PE quite an emotional experience, I suppose, quite stressful.”
As a young teenager, however, Anna and her visually impaired brother Michael found a surprise love for the sport of goalball. This game is played with three players on each side, all wearing blind folds and attempting to score in a goal the width of the court. When not attacking, players use their bodies listen to the ball’s enclosed bell and to try and block the opposition’s goal attempts. They were introduced to this fast-paced game at a ‘have-a-go’ day with a local visual impairment charity.
“It was a wonderful act of God I suppose in that I'd never heard of goalball, never seen it before… It seemed like a good idea from [that first taster] that we'd enter ourselves into a development tournament. And at the time goodness knows why! Because we didn't really know the rules, we didn't have any kit and we were a bit of a shambles really.”
But the pair showed natural ability in the sport, winning their first games with ease and some time later being head-hunted for the Great Britain junior set up. From a girl with little confidence in her sporting abilities to an athlete within the national performance pathway, the introduction of goalball to Anna’s life brought great joy.
“It was such a treat to suddenly have [the stress of sport] let loose and go, ‘Do you know what? You can be physical and enjoy it.’ It just brought such freedom of expression I suppose. Sometimes you don't know something about yourself until you get an opportunity. It’s a wonderful gift.”
Flash forward to the London 2012 Games, where Team GB had secured their goalball spot after four hard years of changing squads and funding uncertainty. Playing in front of unprecedented 7,000-strong crowds, Anna felt “10 feet tall.”
“It was just the dream wasn't it? I mean to compete at a Paralympics and do it on home soil is just incredible. It's like you're doing the thing you enjoy most in the world, and you've got that many people on your side who want it for you. I loved it, I loved showing off. It was just such a joy.”
And through all the highs and lows of her career, Anna’s faith as a Christian has brought her a new perspective on her sport and opportunities to share her faith with teammates.
When Anna became a Christian in her mid-teens, she understood how Jesus’ death on the cross gave her real, relational intimacy with God by taking away the barrier of her sin. From this point, Anna revelled in letting Him into all parts of her life, including onto the goalball court.
“God isn't just about that sort of confined space on Sunday morning. [Being a Christian] is about the ins and outs of your life. Or the ins and outs of the game. God is there with you.”
This led to a wonderful closeness with her heavenly Father as Anna integrated her sport and faith. She began to feel that playing goalball, that using the skills God had given her and playing for Him, could be an act of worship.
“I'm not a gifted singer. That's never been my thing. But I have got an affinity for playing goalball. And every time I play it's like my worship to God. If I can do my best on a goalball court, then that’s my joy in the way that God has made me.”
Anna’s relationships within goalball also created an opportunity to share her faith.
“Because [teammates] see the best and the worst of you, they see all the emotion that you put in. So by nature they see your faith and what that means to you. I've always been open and up front about my faith. And then I've been able to pray with teammates before. That's a really fulfilling experience as well because God becomes part of everything you do within that team.”
Now a mother, Anna is looking forward to sharing the love and hope of Jesus with her young son. Although outside of the rawness of elite sport, God is still close and unchanging in His love, an amazing and welcome truth for the Tipton family to treasure.
Praise God for the way He has given Paralympians like Anna the joy of sport. For those who are Christians, pray that they would see their sport as worship and would share their faith with those around them. Pray that Paralympians who don’t yet know Jesus would come to faith in Him and play and live for His glory.
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