Olympic Heroes With Hearing Loss
Overcoming hearing loss one challenge at a time
In less than a week, the world will watch the accumulation of years of hard work and dedication come to a head during intense competitions at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Each athlete who has the honor of participating in the Olympics has their own unique story, but today we’re focusing on those Olympic competitors past and present who have not only overcome the odds, but also a hearing loss.
Carlo Orlandi (Italy, Boxing)
Orlandi is said to be the first deaf athlete to compete in the Olympic Games. The boxer was a gold medalist in the 1928 Olympic Games. In 1929 he turned professional, and in the 1930s he held both the Italian and European lightweight titles. He was born a deaf-mute.
Tamika Catchings (USA, Basketball)
The 24-year-old WNBA star was born with a hearing loss and incredible athleticism. She has completed 15 seasons in the WNBA, and she has earned WBNA Finals MVP honors as well as the Reynolds Society Achievement Award. The world-famous Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston gives this aware annually to an individual who has overcome hearing, vision, or voice loss and who has distinguished themselves and provided inspiration to others.
Catchings writes on ESPN.go.com:
“In the basketball world, it’s well-known that I was born with a hearing impairment that affects both ears. As a young child, I remember being teased for the way I looked with my big, clunky hearing aids and the speech problems that accompanied the hearing impairment. Every day was a challenge for me. There were plenty of days that I wished I was normal. That’s how sports first came into my life. In the classroom, kids could make fun of me for being different. On the soccer field (my first sport) and eventually the basketball court, they couldn’t. I outworked them, plain and simple. Eventually, I was better than them.”
Catchings intends to continue to prove that this summer by joining an exclusive club with Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie, who are currently the only American basketball players, male or female, to earn four Olympic gold medals.
Jeff Float (USA, Swimming)
Float was the first person to win the gold medals in both the Deaf World Games and the Olympic Games. In 1977 he won 10 gold medals at the 13th World Games for the Deaf in Romania. In 1984 he became an Olympic champion at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. And he was the first deaf Olympian to openly display the universal ILY (I love you) sign on the pedestal during his medal ceremony at the Olympic Games.
The first deaf swimmer to win a gold medal, Float recalls to Sports Illustrated the moment that changed his life:
“It was the first time I remember hearing distinctive cheers at a meet. I’ll never forget what 17,000 screaming people sound like. It was incredible.”
At 13 months old, Float contracted viral meningitis and consequently lost his hearing. He’s 90 percent deaf in his right ear and 65 percent in his left. He now wears digital hearing aids.
He learned to read lips, but he was teased by the other kids at school because of a lisp. He tells SI,
“Kids would boost their self-esteem by putting me down. Swimming gave me the self-confidence I couldn’t find anywhere else. Besides, my name isn’t ‘Field’ or ‘Court.’ It’s ‘Float’ — I had to swim.”
David Smith (USA, Volleyball)
At 6-foot-7, this middle blocker has proven he can stand tall against not only the spike, but also having a hearing loss. A member of the 2012 Olympic team, he helped the U.S. men win the 2015 FIVB Men’s World Cup and qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Smith was born with mild-to-severe hearing loss and wears hearing aids to assist him on and off the court. He also finds hand signals and reading lips incredibly helpful to keeping him on his A game.
“To his credit, there hasn’t been a lot of adjustment,” says USA head volleyball coach Alan Knipe to SignalSCVSports.com. “He’s very much overcome his hearing loss, and he very much wants to be another guy on the team.”
Frank Bartolillo (Australia, Fencing)
In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Bartolillo competed in the individual foil event as the top Australian fencer. On June 16, 2015, the Australian Fencing Federation announced the addition of the Frank Bartolillo Cup to the AFF Collection. The trophy is for annual perpetual competition between the Australian Fencing Associations, during the Australian Under-15 Championships. Bartolillo has claimed that being deaf was an advantage as it enabled him to better concentrate.
The Deaflympics will hold its 23rd Summer Games in 2017 in Samsun, Turkey. The International Committee of Sports for the Deaf (ICSD) is the main governing body responsible for the organization of Deaflympics and other World Deaf Championships. Founded in 1924, the ICSD focuses on “evolving and fortifying the tradition of inviting deaf/hard-of-hearing elite athletes from all of the world to come together not only to compete in their respective sports but also to develop comradeships between their countries.”