Commentary

Noise makers

How deaf athletes deal with noise as part of game strategies

Updated: November 6, 2010, 2:26 PM ET
By Carmen renee Thompson | ESPN The Magazine

Nathan Perkel for ESPN The MagazineEmily Cressy relies on an interpreter, Caitlin Johnson, who shadows the coach on the sideline.

Tune it all out. That's the mental approach most athletes try to take in ­pressure situations. Screaming fans, trash-talking opponents, the drumbeat of feet on bleachers ... it's all just white noise. Or so they say. But what if you can't hear any of it? What if you can't hear a coach's instructions or your teammates calling for the ball? What if you live in a world with little or no sound? Nearly three out of every 1,000 American children are born deaf. And that got us thinking: What's it like for athletes who are deaf to compete at an elite level? We caught up with five of them, who shared their strategies for thriving in silence.

Josh Hembrough
Senior hurdler (60 and 110 meters), Purdue
The 6'5'', 220-pound Hembrough cuts an imposing figure at track meets. But the black headband he usually sports is about function more than fashion, as it helps hold his cochlear implant securely in place. The surgically inserted device stimulates the auditory nerve and provides a sense of sound -- although knowing what kind of sound can sometimes be tricky.

"It takes slightly more time for the sound to pass from the implant to my brain than it does for a person who naturally hears well. So I have to make sure I'm focused and have my mind clear, because the more nervous I get the less I can hear the starting gun and react. I got a false start my freshman year because somebody dropped a shot [put] in the background. It went, boom, and I just tore out. But my implant helps me hear the crowd getting louder and louder as I get closer to the finish line. Being able to hear them motivates me to go faster."

Curtis Pride
Former MLB outfielder and current head baseball coach, Gallaudet University
After an 11-season career with the Expos, Tigers, Red Sox, Braves, Yankees and Angels, Pride (No. 19) turned his focus to coaching. Now he's helping deaf players who face the same challenges he faced.

Nathan Perkel for ESPN The MagazineHurdler Josh Hembrough runs with a cochlear implant.

"I knew because of the politics of the game that if another guy was hitting .260 and I hit .260, they would call him up over me, so I'd better hit .340 to have a chance. People have a tendency to feel sorry for those with disabilities or to have lower expectations for them. But I have high expectations for my players, so I push them hard. We can change perceptions with the way we perform. When I got my first major league hit [with the Expos in 1993], we were fighting for first place, and I got called upon to pinch-hit. The first pitch I saw, I doubled to left center, and 45,000 people stood up and gave me a five-minute standing ovation, all the way through a pitching change and the next at-bat. This was in a dome, so I actually heard it and felt it, too. [He wears a hearing aid.] It was one of the most awesome feelings I've ever experienced. It was almost like they were trying to make me hear them. That's the kind of feeling I want for my players."

Marcus Titus
Swimmer, U.S. national team
His name is on the wall of fame above the practice pool at the University of Arizona, right next to his school record for the 100-yard breaststroke. And there's no asterisk distinguishing his accomplishment from any of the others.

"My friends are impressed that I'm at the same level as everybody else. But really I just train the same way as everybody else. For me, the only difference from a hearing swimmer is a strobe light at the starting blocks. At the national championships this August, there was a delay with the strobe, so I was basically the last one into the pool. They apologized for messing up the signals, but those fractions of a second make a difference. Before the race, I take out my hearing aid, so everything is completely silent. It's a way for me to focus, because I don't have distractions, people talking or background noise. For me, 'loud' is seeing a stadium full of people. I can feel their energy."

Derrick Coleman
Junior running back, UCLA
Football is one of the least deaf-­friendly sports, but that hasn't slowed Coleman. Earlier this season, he ran for 185 yards and three touchdowns against Washington State, and through UCLA's first seven games he was averaging 7.2 yards per carry (51 attempts for 366 yards).

"I wear a wave cap under my hearing aids so that sweat doesn't get in. Then I wear another wave cap over that so they don't pop out when I get hit. My jaw pad is a half-inch instead of the normal inch so I can put my helmet on and take it off without messing with my hearing aids. I keep my head on a swivel. I read lips probably 98 percent of the time. It's not as easy as people think. I hang around with the quarterbacks outside of football so that I'm familiar with how their mouths form words, just in case my hearing aids cut off. In the huddle, the running back is usually in the back and to the side, but my coach moved me up front where the quarterback is so I can read his lips. When we get to the line of scrimmage, and he wants to audible, he yells the play and gives the hand signal, then he always turns around and gives me the signal, too."

Emily Cressy
Junior midfielder/forward, Kansas
She was recruited for her creativity and finishing ability, so it's no surprise that teammates laud her awareness. "Half the time, she doesn't even have to look to know who's open," says senior forward Kaitlyn Cunningham. "It's kind of a sixth sense thing." Cressy wears a hearing aid but also relies on an interpreter, Caitlin Johnson, who shadows coach Mark Francis on the sideline, signing his instructions.

"My team is constantly yelling during games. When I first came here, it was so hard for us to communicate with one another, but we've figured it out. Kaitlyn sometimes puts a finger up to tell me to drop off or hold. If I'm on the other side of the field during a stoppage in play, and I misunderstand what Caitlin is signing, Coach will tell the other girls, and they'll relay it to me. If I don't understand what they're saying, I'll ask them to repeat it. I have to know what's happening out there to anticipate the play. On the field, I see where everything is. Sometimes you can see more because you can't hear."