Athletes

The Strength of Our Olympians

By Vicky Chan

The competitors in this year’s Winter Olympics are full of drive and determination. Olympians throughout history have overcome various challenges for a chance to win the gold, including hearing loss. Hearing loss has played a big role in the lives of some Olympians. In spite of their disability, or, perhaps, because of it, hard-of-hearing Olympians have thrived as athletes. Rather than viewing their hearing loss as a limitation, these Olympians—our very own Gold Medalists—have claimed that compromised hearing has shaped their work ethics and contributed to their success.

Adam Rippon

American Figure skater Adam Rippon. Credit:    Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group.

American Figure skater Adam Rippon. Credit: Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group.

Adam Rippon is a figure skater participating in the 2018 Olympics. He was born with an eye infection and 80% hearing loss. Before his first birthday, he had major surgeries to correct both issues. At age 5, he survived a bursted appendix and severe respiratory condition. Despite his early health difficulties, he won a gold medal at the Four Continent Championship and the national title in 2016.

Tamika Catchings

Tamika Catchings is a retired American WNBA star who was born with hearing loss. She participated in more than 15 WNBA seasons and won four Olympic Gold Medals. Catchings has attributed her success to her hearing loss—compared to her typical-hearing opponents, she is more observant on court which allows her to react faster than they can. Catchings said, “As a young child, I remember being teased for...my big, clunky hearing aids, and the speech problems...Every day was a challenge for me...I outworked [the kids who made fun of me], plain and simple.”

Frank Bartolillo

Frank Bartolillo is an Australian fencer who competed in the 2004 Olympics. He was born with hearing loss, but Bartolillo states that his hearing loss has actually helped him improve his fencing skills by allowing him to fully focus on his opponent.

Carlo Orlandi

Carlo Orlandi was an Italian boxer. At age 18, Orlandi became the first deaf athlete to compete and win a Gold Medal in the 1928 Olympics. Later, he became a professional boxer with a career that spanned 15 years and won nearly 100 matches.

David Smith

David Smith is an American volleyball player who was born with severe hearing loss. At age three, he was fitted for hearing aids in both ears. As an athlete, he relies heavily on hand signals and lip reading to communicate with his teammates. On the court, Smith can’t wear his hearing aid, so his coach, John Speraw, uses the “David Smith Rule.” This rule mandates that “when David wants it, David takes it,'" says Speraw. "Because in the middle of a play, you can't call him off...He's mitigated any issues he has by being a great all-around volleyball player."

Chris Colwill

Chris Colwill is an American diver who was born with hearing loss. Although his hearing aid allows him to hear at an 85-90% level, he can not use it while diving and relies on the scoreboard for his cue to dive. But Colwill stated that this is an advantage for him—noise from the crowd doesn’t distract his concentration on diving.

Katherine Merry

Katherine Merry is a former English sprinter who won a Bronze Medal in the 2000 Olympics. At age 30, she developed tinnitus when a nurse made a mistake during a routine ear cleaning procedure. Ever since, she has lived with a constant high-pitch buzzing sound in her ears. It becomes worse when she is tired, overworked or on a flight. Today, Merry works as a BBC Sports Presenter.

These Olympians prove that those affected by hearing loss can pursue successful careers in sports. Refusing to let anything hold them back, they turned their disabilities into advantages in their respective competitions. Hearing loss allows them to block out distractions and focus on the sport. Their disability has shaped their determination, forcing them to become stronger and better athletes.

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Tamika Catchings: A Star Olympics Athlete With Hearing Loss

By Elizabeth Stump

At the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this August, keep an eye out for Tamika Catchings, a star player with a hearing loss for Team USA Women’s National Basketball Team.

Catchings is a three-time Olympic gold medalist for the U.S. She is hoping to score another gold medal this summer.

Catchings has been a forward on the Indiana Fever Women’s NBA Basketball team for 14 years. Born in New Jersey in 1979, she was diagnosed with moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears when she was a toddler. As a child she struggled with hearing and speech impairments, wearing hearing aids, and bullying. The basketball court became a refuge for her.

In 2000, Catchings was honored with the Reynolds Society Achievement Award by Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston. The annual award is given to an individual who has overcome hearing, vision, or voice loss and has distinguished him/herself. In 2004, she launched the Catch the Stars Foundation, which empowers disadvantaged youth.

This past March Catchings published a memoir, “Catch a Star: Shining Through Adversity to Become a Champion,” chronicling her childhood struggles. She answers some questions about the book and life as an athlete with a hearing loss.

  • What part of the new book are you most proud of sharing?

I think all of it! Writing the book has been a three-year project, so to have a finalized copy is great. It’s about my journey growing up and getting bullied at a young age. A lot of people told me that I would never make it, or that I would never be anything. I think that overcoming that, being able to write the book, and being able to be successful in this realm is great.

  • What part of the book was the most difficult to revisit and write?

Writing about my dad. I always wanted my dad to be a dad, not my coach or a critic. I know he loves me, but it was tough to relive what we went through.

  • Do you wear hearing aids or other hearing devices while playing basketball?

I wear them more when I’m doing speaking engagements. As far as playing, it’s tough because I sweat a lot, so they get clogged.

  • How difficult has it been to play sports with a hearing loss—as a kid, then as a college student, then as a pro and in the Olympics?

Honestly, I have never really focused on it. I read lips [and am] very observant, so I’m always looking around to see if there’s anybody talking to me, or I look at the bench to see if the coach is calling a play. Basketball is a game of sign language. The point guard calls a lot of plays with whatever hand signal we use.

  • Has your hearing loss made any communication difficult for you as a student and then pro?

As a student, yes— I always sat in the front row, I always read chapters of the book before I went to class, and I always stayed after class to talk to the teachers to make sure that I understood. I loved school.

On the court, I think that having a hearing loss has actually made me a better player because it’s made me be more conscious of everything that’s going on around me.

  • How excited are you about the Olympics? Will you be doing anything differently for it, either before to get ready or during the game?

I’m super excited knowing that this is my final hurrah. I never thought I would have an opportunity to make the Olympics, and here I am going for my fourth time. It’s really a blessing and an honor.

I think the preparation for the actual games is always going to be the same. The only difference [is] in the past, I’ve been so focused on being ready for the game that I’d tell myself I needed to stay off my feet. This time I want to make sure that I really enjoy the festivities and Olympic experience.

  • What message do you want to send by writing your book?

It’s not a book on hearing loss or basketball. It’s really just a book about adversity. When people look at professional athletes, they think they’ve had a perfect life their entire life with little or no hardships. I wanted to dispel that notion and share my story to be role model to those who need one. I hope that I will provide inspiration.

Don’t forget to check out another incredibly talented hearing impaired Olympic athlete, David Smith (USA Men Volleyball), this August!

David was born with severe hearing loss in the range of 80% to 90%.  He has worn hearing aids in both ears since he was three years old, and primarily uses speechreading to understand the people on his team. David made his Olympic debut at the 2012 London Olympics.  

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Sports Life in Silence

Chase Ross and his wife, Amy

Chase Ross and his wife, Amy

The crowd is roaring, cheerleaders cheering, coaches are yelling and teammates are making play calls. As hearing impaired athletes, my sister and I did not necessarily hear all of this. Growing up in a small town atmosphere and loving sports, teammates and coaches found ways to communicate with us to ensure we were part of the team, part of the family, by making sure he/she was standing next to us when talking or giving us hand signals during play.

My sister and I were very fortunate to have a close, caring, understanding and loving family to help guide us through life. But they made sure we had to work for everything we earned and did not take anything else in life for granted, much less our hearing. My sister, who has cochlear implants, provided me with a great example of how not to let our hearing loss keep us from doing anything we dreamed. Growing up she was very active with sports. Even as she went on to college, she was a football cheerleader while earning her degree.

Growing up I had a strong passion for playing sports – football, basketball, baseball and track. Sometimes the sweat would get into my hearing aids causing them to not work correctly and I would still have to play parts of games without hearing – relying solely on reading lips and using hand signals that our team had put together for such cases. It was a challenge that my teammates had recognized. That is when you learn to connect with friends, family and teammates on a new level.

To help bridge that gap, last year I founded Sports for Sound, a non-profit entity designed to raise funds and help hearing impaired patients who need financial assistance with obtaining new hearing aids, molds, FM systems for the classrooms or whatever his/her needs may be. After making appointments with my audiologist and needing new hearing aids for the first time since I have been on my own, it hit me how costly they can be, even with insurance. This is what motivated me to want to help those who may need assistance.

To help better educate the participants with hearing and show them why hearing is truly important, participants in the running events must wear ear plugs. This helps the participants better understand what hearing impaired people go through and how much we need to rely on our other senses.

Our first year (2014) was dubbed a success raising over $23,000 and providing assistance to 10 applicants. In 2015, 2015 we raised $18,000 & we were able to provide new hearing aids to 8 recipients. Sports for Sound is having its 3rd annual event on May 21st, 2016 at the Eastern Ohio Sports Complex in Sherrodsville, OH. The event is held in May to coincide with “Better Hearing & Speech Month.” This year our event will feature a 5K obstacle run, 10K road run and 5K cross country walk. The event will also have food, raffles, silent auction and a Chinese auction.

Chase Ross is the founder of Sports for Sound. His goal is to grow SFS to help assist hearing impaired patients beyond its established location, Tuscarawas County, OH., all while giving participants the experience of being hearing impaired while participating in SFS events.

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Visual Learning, Visual Teaching

By Caleb De Vries

My hearing loss is moderate; I hear highs and lows well but it is the middle of the spectrum where most human voices fall where I have trouble. Conversations can be very difficult, especially in noisy environments.

I first received hearing aids when I was 15 but was teased for wearing them; I felt different and somehow less than my peers. As a result I didn’t wear them for many years and struggled to find ways to cope without them.

Caleb De Vries

Caleb De Vries

This provided a challenge for me academically. I hid in the classroom, avoided answering questions, and as a defense mechanism I acted aloof. The gym was the one place where I really felt at home. I excelled in ice hockey, track, volleyball, and basketball. 

I spent hours by myself every day after school mastering ball handling and shooting skills for basketball, and stick handling, inline skating, and shooting skills for hockey. I was very passionate about learning new and creative ways to teach myself how to improve. This passion led me to coach a variety of sports and to pursue bachelor degrees in education and physical education.

I wore hearing aids during university classes but they did not help much, as they were not working well and were too old to fix. I couldn’t afford to buy new hearing aids because they are extremely expensive, but about two years ago my sister Nadine [who works for HHF] paid for my new hearing aids—and they have changed my life.  

Now when I teach and play sports it is very different; voices are much easier to hear and I do not have to spend as much energy trying to hear my teammates or students. When playing sports, I wear a headband to protect my hearing aids and to prevent them from falling out.

I am the program coordinator for Fit Kids Healthy Kids in Winnipeg, Canada. This is run by a nonprofit organization, Sport Manitoba, whose goal is to encourage as many kids to be active as we can. We aim to provide opportunities for children to develop the confidence and competence to participate in any activity and to ultimately become active for life.

Many of the families I work with are recent immigrants whose first language is not English. My hearing loss is beneficial in this situation because it has led me to be a very visual and physical teacher. As a child I had learned by watching my favorite athletes and studying their movements, not by hearing them explain how they execute a skill.

I do not know whether I excelled in sports because of—or despite—having a hearing loss. I had to try harder to hear my coaches and teammates but it also caused me to have a high level of attention to detail, helping me develop my teaching style. When teaching I take every opportunity to give visual cues and demonstrations. In some ways this type of instruction can level the playing field for those who have trouble understanding verbal communication, whether because of hearing loss or because it is a foreign language.

My perceived disability has given me the ability to become more empathetic toward the kids who struggle with poor self-esteem and a fear of failure. When I was young I believed that I wasn’t good at math or science. The truth is I never knew how good I could be at these subjects because I was too afraid to fail.

It is the same fear that I see in kids who believe they are not athletic. Most often they are just too afraid to try because trying presents the possibility of failure. Helping a child overcome this fear is the most rewarding part of my job; it is such an incredible sense of accomplishment to know that I play a small role in this crucial step toward their development.

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Congratulations to the First Deaf NFL Player to Play in the Super Bowl: Derrick Coleman!

By Tara Guastella

Hearing loss is sometimes considered an invisible disability. You usually can’t see hearing loss but the impact it has can be life-altering. Many even try to hide their hearing loss for fear of embarrassment. Others embrace it and do everything in their power to not let it hamper them. Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman—who played in the Super Bowl Sunday—embraces it.

I was so moved when I first watched the Duracell commercial (below) that featured Coleman. Over the years at HHF we’ve been in touch with so many actors, sports stars, politicians, and other celebrities that are afraid of “coming out” about their hearing loss. But Coleman freely and openly talks about his hearing loss in a positive way.

Coleman, at the age of 23, broke the mold and has had an enormous impact on each and every person that experiences or knows someone who experiences hearing loss. He has become a role model for those young and old alike. He told the New York Times, “If you really want something, you find a way to make it happen.”

Coleman made it happen during last night’s game. And over the past few weeks he has made it happen for some of his biggest fans: children and young adults with hearing loss. He personally responded to an inspirational letter sent to him via Twitter from Riley Kovalcik, a 9-year-old girl who wears two hearing aids. A couple of days later Coleman surprised Riley and her twin sister with tickets to last night’s big game. Adham Talaat of Bridgewater, N.J., who is training for May’s NFL draft, believes that Coleman will pave the way for other players who are deaf. The senior at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., says he never had a deaf role model until he learned of Coleman.

I am so proud of Coleman and the Seahawks for their victory against the Denver Broncos last night (and this is coming from a diehard NY Giants fan!).

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