Swimming in Silence

Swimming in Silence

6 Min Read
Courtesy of Southern Illinois University Athletics
Athletic Level: NCAA DI Swimming

I began swimming just shortly before we found out I was Deaf.

Just like any other kid, I did the normal rotation of sports to see which would stick. My dad played basketball, but I wasn’t deemed “aggressive” enough; my mom was a golfer, and that was just plain boring. So my parents made me join our neighborhood swim team at the age of seven to simply “try it out.” It was the first year of its existence, and the season consisted of daily morning practices and one mock meet at the end of the June. At the mock meet, I won every event in my age group.

You can only guess how much that inflated my ego.

After figuring out that I wasn’t half bad, that fall I joined the year-round club team. I had found something I loved doing (mainly because seven-year-old Grace thought I was really good), and my dad, being the more competitive out of my parents, saw the potential in me, and drove me to every single practice offered. The first group I was placed in only had three practice times a week, and then, before I knew it, I was going five nights a week. Something that seemed casual and fun became serious. It was too late to back out then, and my dad was just as invested as I was. 

I got my first pair of hearing aids at the age of 10. I had already been failing hearing tests at school for years; I would always bring my notice letter home to my parents and they would dismiss it with the simple excuse of “You just have selective hearing.” I had good grades, was reading at a 12th grade level, and was social- nothing seemed wrong.  In fifth grade, my school nurse (and close family friend) offered my parents the ultimatum; take me into an actual doctor, or she’d call the administration. My dad took me to an audiologist, and with one look at the results, the doctor told me he couldn’t help me. My hearing was worse than he expected. 

After that, I went in and out of various specialists’ offices, trying to find an answer for my severe hearing loss. Why was I able to talk so well? Why wasn’t I recommended hearing aids at the age of three when I failed tests at a pediatric check-up? What caused my hearing loss? I was testing positive for autoimmune diseases, driving hours to see rheumatologists, and yet, I was still swimming. 

When I got my first pair of hearing aids at 10, I already had supportive teachers, peers, coaches, and teammates right with me who helped me with the transition. For the first few months, I couldn’t stand wearing my hearing aids. I was getting headaches, and migraines. I would end up taking my hearing aids out after only three hours in because honestly, sound hurt! I found myself turning the volume down, and I couldn’t understand how people could tolerate so much noise. In swimming, I suddenly had a light beside my block at every meet and a reason behind all my confusion for the three years prior. But even still, it wasn’t an excuse for me. I had gone so long assuming I was just like everyone else, and I wasn’t going to use this for pity or preferential treatment.  

Courtesy of Southern Illinois University Athletics

Swimming has been the best thing that happened to me. Regardless of being the only deaf swimmer in my city, for the most part it didn’t matter. I was there doing the same workouts, competing at the same meets, and going to state and regionals with my team. But sometimes I couldn’t help feeling a bit out of place. To some, I was quickly labeled the “Deaf One”, was pointed at while I stood behind blocks, and considered a burden to deal with, just because I needed a light to get a fair start. I was often angry. I called people out, and I didn’t know how to deal with the ignorance that people exhibited toward me. But in time, I learned to turn my anger into advocacy, to stand up for myself and teach others. I began to use the doubt of others as a reason to win.

At the age of 15, a family friend suggested I contact the U.S. Deaf Swimming Federation about the upcoming World Deaf Swimming Championships. As one of the youngest who applied, I was chosen for the team, and got to meet individuals from all over the world who were in the same situation I was- trying to prove themselves in a sport that sometimes forgot about us. While I unfortunately didn’t get to venture far from home (the meet happened to be 15 minutes away from me), I stayed in a hotel for two weeks laughing, yelling, signing, and crying with people who had gone through many of the same things I had.

Some, like me, grew up in hearing families, signing enough to get by. Others grew up going to Schools for the Deaf and knew so much about Deaf culture it amazed me. They were willing to teach, and were patient with our sloppy, broken signing. We all had our own unique stories to share; ones of rejection, failure, doubt. I realized my swimming career was much more than high school swimming, or South Texas, and competing against Deaf swimmers like myself held more sentiment. I walked away from the experience with two bronze medals, brand new friends, and an experience of a lifetime. 

I continued with club swimming and high school swimming, and didn’t want to stop there- I wanted to swim in college. In the recruiting world, there is no box to check saying “I’m deaf.” Even if there was, I didn’t want to be recruited as a deaf swimmer; I wanted my times and work ethic to be enough. I had coaches and teammates saying I was “lucky” that teams would want a deaf swimmer to look diverse, but most of the schools did not even know I was deaf. I didn’t want to feel like I was cheating the system; I didn’t even tell my current school’s team that I was deaf until I was on my recruiting trip. It wasn’t as if I was embarrassed, I was already well past that. I had spent so long trying to break out of being defined as the deaf swimmer, and swimming in college seemed like the only way to do so. 

Courtesy of Southern Illinois University Athletics

I passed up the tuition waiver offered to me in Texas and chose Southern Illinois to be close to my family we had moved away from, and found comfort in the close-knit team and supportive coaching staff. Being on a collegiate team as a deaf swimmer seems like it would be a hard transition, but the adversity I’ve faced in the past in my swim career and life in general has already prepared me for the intensity of Division One athletics. Southern has provided me the chance to continue challenging myself and the expectations that others have for me. By swimming at this level, I’ve shattered misconceptions held by former teammates, former coaches, and naysayers everywhere. I have a sense of pride in exceeding the low bar that was set for me in the beginning, but it didn’t come easy. Southern Illinois has not put a limit on my accomplishments; my coaches know how much more I have in me, and I have a lot more to prove.

As I write this, I have just finished up my first swim season here at Southern Illinois. I was on the scoring team as a freshman, something I never expected, and got to watch my team upset several others to place second overall. I did not do as well as my coaches and I would’ve hoped, but I have been reassured by everyone around me that I did everything right, the details just aren’t perfect yet. I have three more seasons- and now I know what I have to change. 

I have so much left to do, both academically and in the pool. I am currently studying Business Marketing, and would like to go back to Texas and attend graduate school in data analysis. If my parents would let me, I would get multiple degrees and be a professional student; however, I would love to work in the advertising field and do statistics based research. In swimming, I look forward to breaking the two Deaf American records that I am close to passing, and place in the top eight in my conference next year. While I cannot attend the upcoming World Deaf Swimming Championships due to NCAA fundraising rules, my next stop is the 2021 Deaflympics, where I will see many of my old friends and meet new ones. 

To the next four years as a Saluki- Go Dawgs!

Texas native Grace Hale is a student at and member of the swim team at Southern Illinois University, where she studies Business Marketing. She is also a member of the United States Deaf Swim Team.

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