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Hear Life’s Story™

Going for the Gold

After 17 days of competition Team USA once again made Americans proud. Our athletes took home the most medals at this year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo: 133 to be exact. China followed with a total of 88 medals. And while China led the race for the gold throughout the Games, the US Women’s Volleyball team won our 39th gold medal on the final day of competition, edging out China’s 38. Russian athletes garnered 71 medals, including 20 gold, and Japan, the host country, won a record number of gold medals at 27.  

Going for the gold isn’t easy. Depending on their sports, some athletes start training as children. Olympic gold medal snowboarder Chloe Kim first hit the slopes at the age of 4 and entered her first competition at 6. Michael Phelps began his quest to be the world’s best swimmer when he was 7. These athletes give it their all, pushing themselves to the limit every single day.

These athletes are lucky; they don’t have disabilities. Imagine being deaf and trying to train for the race of your life. You can’t hear the coach’s whistle or the gunshots and buzzers that signal the start of the race. You have to communicate with your coach and trainer by reading lips or using sign language. Much of the time you don’t hear exactly what was said, but you don’t want to be “different,” so you pretend that you heard. This invisible disability makes achieving your goal twice as difficult, but not impossible.   

There are a surprising number of athletes over the years who did not let hearing loss stand in the way of success. Each has a unique story that you can read here.

US swimmer Jeff Float will go down in history as the first legally deaf US athlete to win a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Jeff got meningitis as an infant and lost 90 percent of his hearing in one ear and 65 percent in the other. Nevertheless, he took to the water and smashed high school and college records. The roar when he won the gold was so loud, he recalls, “It was the first time I remember distinctively hearing loud cheers at a meet.” Today Jeff is a professional coach and major advocate for the deaf and hearing-impaired.

With nearly 100 percent hearing loss, Terence Parkin, a South African swimmer, shocked the world in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when won the silver medal in the 200-meter breaststroke race. He said of his trip to the Olympics, “I am going to represent South Africa, but it's so vitally important for me to show that the deaf can do anything. I would like the world to see that there’s opportunities for the deaf.” Terence has become known as the “silent torpedo.” He’s won 400 gold medals, 200 silver medals and 50 bronze medals in a variety of swimming competitions around the world. He’s now a coach at a school for the deaf in Johannesburg.

Chris Colwill is a US diver who was born with 60 percent hearing loss in both ears. He participated in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and is a 10-time national diving champion. Chris started diving when he was 5 at a summer camp in his hometown of Brandon, Florida. Until recently, hearing aids were not able to be submerged in water, which meant Colwill could not hear the buzzer. He looked to the scoreboard for his prompt to begin. Known as the “greatest diver in Georgia,” Chris has return to Georgia to coach the Bulldogs diving team.

US Olympic basketball player Tamika Catchings overcame hearing loss in both ears as well as a speech impediment. As a young child she was bullied by her classmates and often went home in tears. At some point in grade school, she says, she realized her classmates could say whatever they wanted about her disability. “I knew that with enough hard work I could be better than they were at something.” Tamika won gold at each of the four Olympics between Athens in 2004 and Rio in 2016. She is a legend in the WNBA, winning MVP in 2011.

David Smith has worn hearing aids since the age of 3, when he was diagnosed with 80-90 percent hearing loss. He wanted some kind of ball for every birthday and holiday, until he focused in on volleyball. “Sports were definitely a confidence booster for me,” Smith said. “It was something I thrived at despite having a ‘disadvantage.’  …It was a unique way for me to integrate myself with the hearing world.” The volleyball player made his Olympic debut at the London Games in 2012 and won bronze in the 2016 Olympics. He also participated in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. David now travels around the world playing volleyball to help to inspire deaf children. 

These athletes have accomplished amazing feats in the world of sports. But more important than winning, they all know that being a role model and advocate for others with hearing loss is worth more than all the gold in the world.


Claudia Hensen's Blog Series