- Mike Suchan, Outdoors
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SALEM, Ore. -- Most people who hear Bryce Smith speak think he's Australian.
"A lot of people think I have an accent," the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS speed climber said. "Australian or British. I kind of laugh when people say 'Are you from Australia?'"
Not many people realize he's deaf.
"I notice when people say, 'Where are you from?'" said the 22-year-old. "And my first thought is to say, 'speech impediment.' So I kind of say, 'Australian.'"
At 18 months, Smith was sent back to square one. He had spinal meningitis and spent nearly a month in the hospital.
"I got this really high fever," Smith said. "The area in your ear that picks up the sound wave, it started hardening up and it wouldn't move … and I lost my hearing."
His mother Angie said she taught him some sign language before doctors told her to stop because his speech would become lazy and they wanted him to talk. Totally deaf, he had to wait until age 3 to have a cochlear implant.
The device, which cost $42,000, is bolted into his skull behind his left ear. An outer unit is held on magnetically and wired to an earpiece.
"There's a little electrode that bypasses the eardrum and goes inside the cochlea," he said. "It's covered in silicone and every time it picks up sound from the transmitter, it sends it to my cochlea."
Smith still can't hear certain sounds, like the starter's beep in the speed climb, so someone has to tap him. Crowds also make hearing difficult, but if he chooses, he can tune out.
"Like if there's drama going on, I take it off," he said. "I don't want to hear it."
"It was really funny. When he was little he would say, 'Talk to the hand,' when he didn't want to mind," his mother said. "Or he'd take the magnet off so he couldn't hear me talk. But he's a good kid."
Angie said it has presented difficulties, but she's proud of him.
"Some people don't even know he's deaf," said Angie, who raised him on her own. "He had to learn how to talk, walk, do everything again. I did speech with him every day. He'd go to hospitals sometimes on a weekly basis and do speech.
"Mostly, every time he would say anything wrong I would correct him. He'd get mad at me sometimes, but I'd say, 'You need to learn the word.'"
Some unusual phrases or words still give him troubles. Scouting for deer with his grandfather, Smith would be allowed to sit on his lap and drive the four-wheeler.
"Grandpa said, 'Bryce, now don't wreck us,'" Angie said. "Bryce is like, 'Grandpa, what's a reckus?' You have to explain some things for him."
Smith jumps in, saying that similar words will throw him. His misunderstandings sometimes caused teasing in school until he made the wrestling team and advanced to the state tournament every year.
Like the rest of his life, his disability made him find another way to get the job done. In the hubbub of a wrestling meet, he couldn't hear his coach's instructions, so body signals were developed.
"I was taught how to use defense that's the most important that set up the offense," he said. "We would work on problem solving, like what I did wrong, and fix it."
Besides climbing, he's also a chopper and competes in regional lumberjack competitions and works at Home Depot.
He's currently wearing a loaner after his cochlear device broke, and his earnings at the STIHL event will give him enough to buy the $800 unit.
"He has to give that one back," Angie said. "I've been talking to the Lions Club hoping they can help us. They've done so much for him. His doctors are telling us it would benefit him to be implanted on the other side, too."
That might prove prohibitive as the implant and procedure now costs $60,000, but he's not sure he even wants to do it.
"If I had two," he said, "I wouldn't know where the noises were coming from."
12hMike Fish and David Purdum