“What makes us all so unique is our innate ability to adapt and overcome. Deafness is just like any other disability. It doesn’t define the person. All things are still possible.” - Drew Sutton, MD, Board-Certified Otolaryngologist
Deafness can be a setback when it comes to living day-to-day when compared to having fully functioning hearing. Not understanding spoken language and having to rely mainly on your visual cues is certainly a large undertaking.
While deafness can make certain aspects of your life more complex, it doesn't need to stop you from accomplishing your dreams and hold you back in daily life.
Deafness can be inherited, or it can be developed over time for several different reasons. An infection, delayed onset deafness, neurodegenerative disorders, and even viruses can lead to hearing impairment.
Severe hearing loss and deafness are pervasive across the globe, and countless individuals persevere through the inability to perceive sound and make it big.
Hearing is important, but ultimately you can live without it and, in some cases, thrive. Deaf athletes are some of the best examples of how a lack of hearing doesn’t need to stop you, slow you down, or keep you from attaining your goals. Below is a closer look at eight athletes with hearing loss.
Heidi Zimmer is a mountaineer that was born in 1951 in California. She was born deaf, but this didn't stop her from staying active and actively pursuing her passions. Zimmer played several sports while growing up, including volleyball, track & field, and even competed in the women’s high jump for the 1969 Deaflympics and took home the bronze medal.
It wasn’t until her adult life that she began undertaking mountaineering. She soon honed in on the ultimate goal of climbing all seven summits when a mountaineer climbs the highest summit on each continent. In 1991 Zimmer conquered her first summit in North America which is Mount Denali in Alaska. In the following years, Zimmer climbed Mount Elbrus in Russia and Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.
In 1996 Zimmer was diagnosed with Usher’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder that can result in deafblindness. Despite this diagnosis, Zimmer is still pursuing her goals of climbing all seven summits and hopes to inspire others and illustrate that anything is possible, even with sensory-related disabilities.
Swimming is a world-renowned sport, and on the Olympic stage, the stakes are high to push the human body to its limit. Terence Parkin is a professional swimmer that is deaf and has proven that those with a hearing disability can persevere and become a top competitors. In the 2000 Olympics, Parkin took home a silver medal in the 200m breaststroke for South Africa.
In addition to an amazing performance in the Olympics, Parkin is also a repeat gold medalist for swimming in the Deaflympics. The impressive track record of Terence Parkin illustrates that hearing loss is only one aspect of your life, and you can push through whatever life throws your way and still accomplish great things.
Tamica Catchings is a basketball all-star with an expansive career ranging from the WNBA to the Olympic stage. Catchings was born in 1979 in New Jersey. From a young age, Catching was hard of hearing and required hearing aids throughout school, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing her passions of basketball.
Catchings is one of only a few individuals who earned an Olympic gold, World Champion gold medal, WNBA championship, and an NCAA title. This outstanding track record earned her a well-deserved spot in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2021.
Catching has since retired from the court, but she inspires others to push through adversity and accomplish their goals. Since 2004 Catchings has been working with her foundation known as Catch the Stars Foundation, which aims to help disadvantaged youth achieve their dreams. Today the foundation continues to be a pillar in the local community and inspire youth to become the best they can be.
Jakub Nosek is an Olympian and was born in 1989 in Czech. At the age of three, Nosek contracted Meningitis. Meningitis is an inflammation of the tissues that surround the brain.
A bacteria or virus typically causes inflammation, and in some instances, the infection can spread to the auditory organ known as the cochlea or potentially affect the auditory nerve. The infection can damage the inner hairs of the cochlea or damage the nerve to the point that it is unable to detect sounds. Meningitis-associated hearing loss typically results in permanent sensorineural hearing loss.
In Nosek’s case, he had asymmetrical sensorineural hearing loss due to his Meningitis and lost nearly all hearing in his right ear and about 80 percent in his left ear.
Despite Meningitis damaging his hearing at a young age, Nosek has competed in numerous events on the national stage, including competing in the Deaflympics with Track and Field and competing in the Olympics with Bobsleigh.
Matt Hamil is an athlete that has participated in mixed martial arts and wrestling throughout his life. Hamil was born deaf and has earned quite the reputation as a formidable opponent in the ring.
His career started off with high school wrestling, where he set many of the school wrestling records. Hamill won three NCAA Division III titles in college and had an astounding 89-3 college record. Additionally, he won two gold medals in the “World Games of the Deaf” and earned gold in the 2001 Deaflympics.
His mixed martial arts career started when he was cast for an MMA TV series. Hamill debuted in UFC in 2007 and since then has a 13-8 record.
Hamill’s track record and unique circumstances inspired a film based upon his early life as a deaf athlete. Additionally, in 2015, Hamill was inducted into the Ohio chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Medal of Courage to commemorate his dedication and ability to prevail through adversity with his induction.
David Smith is an accomplished volleyball player and has had mild to profound hearing loss since he was born in 1985. Despite his hearing impairment, Smith is an accomplished athlete in a sport that requires frequent communication amongst athletes. Utilizing mainly lip reading and hand signals, Smith can effectively communicate with his team and provide real added value.
David Smith is a three-time Olympian and brought home the bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. In addition to having attained Olympian status, Smith has consistently been in the front of the pack with the world, national, and regional championships.
Jim Kyte was born in 1964 in Canada and made history by being the first deaf player in the National Hockey League. Kyte developed near complete deafness by the age of three due to a gene he inherited. In fact, Kyte’s father and five brothers all developed deafness early in life due to genetic auditory nerve degeneration.
Kyte’s father advocated for his children to work towards their passions and emphasized the importance of perseverance. Kyte’s father was an accomplished athlete and graduated from dental school while being hard of hearing. Jim seemingly followed his fathers’ ideology of pushing himself despite not having hearing capabilities. Kyte went on to do well in school, and in 1982 he started his professional hockey career with the Winnipeg Jets.
Due to an unfortunate car accident in 1997, Kyte was forced to retire and hang up his jersey. Jim Kyte still holds a legacy as one of the best defensemen, and to this day, Jim Kyte has been the only legally deaf individual to play on the ice at a professional level.
Ashley Fiolek was born in Michigan in 1990. Fiolek was born deaf, but it didn’t stop her from being active and enjoying the outdoors. During her early life, Fiolek frequently rode motorcycles, which ultimately led to her passion for motocross.
Fiolek won a total of four WMX National Championships in her five years as a professional motocross racer. Additionally, Fiolek raced in three X Games events and won two of them. With her first X Games victory, she set a precedent as the youngest Women’s Motocross Champion and first deaf medalist.
In conclusion, experiencing deafness or hard of hearing is entirely manageable, and the eight athletes above prove that deafness doesn’t define what they choose to do with their lives.
Their success proves they are just as capable as those with fully intact hearing and that anything is possible with the right persistence, attitude, and grit. Whether you are fully deaf or have a degree of hearing loss, there are ways to which you can adapt and live a fairly normal life.
The use of hearing aids, visual cues, and sensing certain vibrations has allowed these athletes to excel in their given sport and prove to the world that those with hearing impairment are just as able to compete as their hearing counterparts.