More than 130 swimmers from 22 countries participated in the week-long World Deaf Swimming Championships in San Antonio, Texas, in mid-August. Currently in its fourth year, the international event, which is separate from the Deaf Olympics, is one of a few designed only for swimmers who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Rene Massengale, who works with USA Deaf Swimming and is a parent of a competitor, appreciates that there is a special event like this.
“We’re so thrilled to be able to see the athletes come together,” says Massengale. “Just seeing them want to learn each other’s language, want to support each other, is just a life-changing experience for them. Often times they are the only deaf swimmer on their teams back home, so to be on an entire team of deaf athletes who know what’s it’s like, who know the challenges, is very special for them.”
For many of these athletes, it is an honor to be able to compete, and they want people to know events like these do exist.
“It really helps motivate other deaf people and children to do swimming and do other sports,” says 17-year-old U.S. swimmer Kaitlyn Weatherby. “It’s great for them to get to know people who are like them.”
One thing that makes this event unique is an LED lighting system that is placed at every lane. It is used to give the swimmers cues on what to do. Red lights mean the swimmers must get ready on the starting block, blue lights tell the swimmers to take their mark, and green lights mean it’s time to go!
This LED lighting system is fairly new and is not used everywhere. However, the athletes and trainers seemed to be very happy with it.
“It’s different than what we’ve used before,” says Great Britain coach Mel Davis. “Before, we used a traffic light system with one big stand. In the UK, [the swimmers] have to turn their heads to see the light system, but this seems to work quite well, and the athletes are very happy with that.”
Having the LED lighting system was a must in order for San Antonio’s Northside Swim Center to be able to host this worldwide event. It was among the many reasons the sparkling facility was chosen over many other sites.
“We looked at all over the country, and we picked here because it’s a beautiful facility and we couldn’t keep our eyes off of it,” says meet director Doug Matchett.
To answer interview questions, swimmers from outside the U.S. would communicate with an international interpreter. That interpreter would use sign language to speak with an American interpreter, who then spoke to me.
In addition, the international interpreter used sign language to translate every national anthem that was played.
Marcus Titus, who won gold for the U.S. in the 100-meter breaststroke, is very happy to be on the team and hopes to build on his performance for future events.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for me and all the athletes,” says Titus. “[Having difficulty] hearing shouldn’t be an obstacle to prevent you from doing what you want.”
The meet marked the first time many of the athletes had traveled to the United States. Perhaps the most spirited group was the Australian team. The swimmers decorated their tent with their team colors of green and yellow, handed out hats and sombreros for team members not in the pool, and even brought out a large inflatable kangaroo, along with their very own mascot koala named Krikey.
“Every time you can represent your country is special, and to be able to communicate with other countries, and learn how they swim and race is very fun,” says Australian swimmer Jade Wellstead.
There are no age restrictions for this competition, which allowed 12-year old Cooper Willetts, from Texas, and 13-year-old Emma Doughty, from New York, to compete with anyone, even 30-year-old athletes.
“Well, I’m just the kid I am,” says Willetts. “I’m funny and polite, but I view it as being the underdog. You may be 10 years older than me, but I can still kick your butt.”
Adds Doughty, “This is really nice. It’s fun because you get to meet all these wonderful people here from different countries. We get to be on a team, and it feels like family.”
From warmups to the medal ceremonies, it was inspiring to see these athletes, who work as hard as anyone out there, compete in an event designed just for them.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a disability. No one has the right to tell you that you can’t do anything, because you can,” says international interpreter Nigel Howard. “If you have a dream, a goal, go ahead and go for it. Don’t allow anyone to stop you. There are a lot of options of where to compete. Just go for it.”
Photos: Brian Yancelson (swimmers before race, Australian team); Rene Massengale (swimmer on starting block with LED light)