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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