Loud & Clear: USA Deaf Women’s Soccer Gears Up For World Cup

I view being deaf as a super power…”

The United States Deaf Women’s National Team (USDWNT) will be representing the United States at the 2016 Deaf World Cup in Italy, ready to win it for the second time in a row. The USDWNT has gone undefeated against international opposition, and is looking to keep that streak going. To date, they have won 21 out of 21 games scoring 122 goals and conceding only eight in the process.

They also compete in the Deaflympics which they won three consecutive times, in 2005, 2009, and 2013. The Deaflympics is one of the longest running international sports competitions alongside the likes of the Olympics. I found it surprising that many, including myself, were unaware that the Deaflympics existed, let alone that the United States has a highly successful soccer team that represents the country every four years.

For a public speaking class in school, our final speech had to be on a charity. I wanted to pick a charity related to soccer, and asked around on some various forums. A user suggested looking at USA Deaf Soccer, which is severely underfunded (more on that later). I have sinus issues at times, finding it hard to hear others. I have to ask people to repeat themselves and may miss out on some whispers and gossip, and it is frustrating. If I get frustrated from that, then how must these deaf people feel, especially those who were born with hearing impairments? And I would find that out, and more, after asking a few members of the team some questions. For me, USA Deaf Soccer became more than a charity that would help me get a good grade, but a charity that I would be willing to dedicate time and resources to help. In this article, I won’t be be preaching or begging for donations, the most I will ask is for you to now be aware of Deaf Soccer and Deaf Sports in general.

I was privileged enough to get in contact with Lexi Cano, Sydney Andrews, Allie Galoob, and Kate Ward, – international players who not only answered my questions, but gave me an insight of what it is like to be deaf, what it is like the be the only one on the team with an impairment, and then to be on a team with everyone who has the same impairment as you.

Photo via USDWNT player @meghanmaiwald on Twitter

First, I asked them about what it was like to grow up being deaf, to be the only kid on their team who was deaf, and finally end up on a team where everyone is deaf. Unlike many disabilities, deafness is a “silent” disability, a disability that those around you would not notice at first glance. Even when aware of the hearing impairment, peers treated the deaf players the same as they would any other teammate. With a bit of adaptation and effort the deaf girls went beyond their disabilities and lived a normal life on and off the field.

Sydney Andrews, a 22-year old centre back, said “There was always a learning period. For me, I have never been ashamed or embarrassed about being deaf so right away I would let my coaches and my teammates become aware of the fact that I am deaf and what that means. Everyone handles it in a different way but I found that the more comfortable and open I was, the more comfortable and accepting others were. I think because of me being deaf, the hearing teams I played for were able to learn even more about communication and realise that communication is not only verbal, for me and many others, it is visual. My teammates learned how to adapt and be more helpful visually with me on the field, so I was very lucky and am grateful.”

In youth soccer parents and coaches are shouting so many instructions that a child’s head will begin to spin. Learning about visual communication and being able to read the game is huge. Sydney, in a way, has an advantage as she has had to read the game for a longer time. “It also prompts us to be more aware, more present, and requires us to anticipate and learn how each of us plays so that we know exactly where to play the ball or where to be. I honestly think because of that, we are all better soccer players.” She also addressed the stigma of a disability, no matter how big or small it is. Many try to hide their problems, but Sydney says to shout it from the rooftops, let those around you know who you are. “I view being deaf as a super power, and because of that attitude and the way I handle it I think most people pick up on that and realise that it is okay; Maybe even a cool thing!” That way, everyone can be aware of what is needed when working together. And working together is key.

Not all is perfect says Allie Galoob, a 28 year-old outside midfielder, who adds that a lack of hearing can make you feel like an outcast: “It’s just an unfortunate thing that happens because I work so hard every day, every second to try to catch everything that is communicated. It is exhausting. I’ve always struggled with connecting with my team off the field and was often left to myself on the bus or before/after games.”

“Growing up, my teammates didn’t really treat me any differently, they did a good job doing their best to make sure I understood what was going on in the game or passing on feedback from my coaches. The hardest part was communicating with them off the field because I couldn’t always hear them or understand them. Unfortunately I wasn’t always lucky enough to say the same about my coaches. I’ve had to deal with several coaches who were not willing to work with me/meet me halfway.”

Kate Ward adds “It’s exhausting (for the hard of hearing) to keep up with every day conversations, something that I don’t think many people realise. We expend a lot of trying to listen and read lips and process what is being said and where it’s coming from whilst only catching a few words. This is a phenomenon called listening fatigue and I think it makes feeling left out unavoidable, especially in group conversations or loud places.”

Photo via Facebook.com/USDeafSoccerWnt

Communication. How does a team of deaf athletes communicate? The answer is simple: ASL (American Sign Language), lip-reading, and visual cues. For Deaf Soccer games, the athletes are not allowed to use hearing aids. A trend I found when asking these ladies some questions, is that because they wear hearing aids all the time, ASL is not really needed for them. “Some of us know ASL, some of us don’t. Some of us are good at lip reading, some of us aren’t. However, we find a way through a combination of lip reading and signing. The key to this is that everyone is very patient and willing to repeat themselves multiple times in order to make sure the point gets across. This is probably due to the fact that we all know what it’s like to be the one person who doesn’t get the message,” 22 year-old central midfielder Kate Ward told me.

A balance must be found.  “21 Year-old defender Lexie Cano summed it up, “I pick up on it when I’m with the team but when I get back home, I ‘lose it’ because I have no one else to communicate in sign language to. One of the most important factors I’ve noticed for communication is paying attention. We need to focus to what our coach or interpreter is saying because we can’t see them and read their lips/interpret their signs, we don’t know what’s going on.” Allie Galoob laughs as she says “Honestly, I still am trying to figure out how we accomplish so much on the field when we cannot hear each other. It is sort of a combination of charades, telephone and guesswork. We have an innate understanding that we need to be aware of our surroundings and often look at each other as often as we can to see if there’s anything we need to communicate. Every time there’s a dead ball, we look. The ball’s on the other side, we look. The ball’s out of bounds, we look. The ball’s coming our way, we take quick looks. Throw in, we look.”

The best conversations that the women have are undoubtedly being able to communicate with athletes and peers from around the world at the Deaf World Cups and the Deaflympics. “We automatically relate on a level that most people wouldn’t. I love learning their sign language and learning about their lives. I actually have more fun trying to figure out what they’re asking me (even if it takes 15 minutes) because they’re signing a different language and speaking a different language than I do. It is because we both put in the work and know how much it sucks to hear ‘never mind,'” said Allie Galoob.

Sydney Andrews added “It is so cool to me when I meet other deaf athletes from around the world. Just to know that they have stepped out of themselves, overcame adversity and are doing something they love. I also love it because its a chance to show the world that no matter what difficulties or hardships you may face, you can achieve anything you put your mind to. There is something about sports and competition that has a uniting aspect, a uniting force. Anyone can play, everyone deserves a chance and anyone can do anything they want to do so long as they have the heart and determination to do it.” Lexie Cano also chimes in saying that meeting deaf athletes from around the world, who share the same challenges as she does, is “very empowering.”

Photo via USDeafSports.org

In Deaf Soccer, the referees communicate with the players using flags instead of using whistles. Allie Galoob, speaking about when she was younger and on regular, non-deaf teams, said “Some referees were hard to deal with/work with especially those who gave me a hard time for not responding to the whistle. I’ve been carded a few times for not responding. I think that it was just because they forgot I was deaf and were frustrated that a player was not stopping every time they blew the whistle.” When on non-deaf teams, the accommodations needed are far less than I expected. “Accommodations made for me due to my hearing were small ones, such as me playing on the side of the coaches instead of the far side.

For college, during the beep test, my coach would raise her hand down to signal the beep for me to run. At times when it suddenly started to pour rain, I would have to run off to the sideline, middle of the game, to give the coach my hearing aid (because it’s not waterproof),” according to Lexie Cano.

The lack of a hearing aid during deaf soccer games can cause some balance problems. According to verywell.com, up to 30% of deaf people may have balance issues. Throw in the fact that many of the ladies wear hearing aids almost all the time and it will feel unnatural to be without them when playing. Sydney Andrews said “Many of us struggle with balance, I know mine is not great by any means and part of that is because of our hearing loss and our equilibrium. However, we are given lots of training and exercises to try and help with that and see if we can maximise our balance potential!

Most of us have adapted and learned to become the most stable we can be and still perform at a high level. For myself personally, I enjoy playing without my hearing device. Not that my CI or hearing aid actually help me when I wear them in games, I’m so focused that hearing goes out the window! All kidding aside, it is calming and almost allows me to focus more and forces me to become more aware. It also allows me to just be present in the game, and really be in tune to what is going on and what my teammates are wanting from me just based on visual cues.”

“During my very first camp with the USDWNT, we had to take our hearing devices out and I was so uncomfortable. This was my first time taking my devices out to play with others. I got emotional and frustrated. I didn’t really know how to play if I couldn’t hear. I felt like I was the only one who couldn’t hear. But I’ve learned to remember that all of us can’t hear. Now, I’m completely fine with taking my devices out and am comfortable with it,” Lexie Cano adds.

Kate Ward also says “When I first joined the team, I was extremely nervous about not being able to wear my cochlear implant. However, I quickly realised that everyone else was in the same boat as me. At this point, I can honestly say that I don’t feel at all odd without it during the run of play. In fact, I think it helps me be more focused and relaxed on the field. I like to train and run without it, because it helps me get in the proper mindset. On the field, I have to make sure that I’m very aware of my surroundings and think a few steps ahead, because I can’t hear the defender coming up behind me or hear my teammate calling for the ball. My college coach and I actually experimented with me not wearing it with my hearing team during practices and games. I never would have felt comfortable enough to do that if I hadn’t grown up with the USDWNT.”

Allie Galoob. Photo via slu.edu

So now we get how Deaf Soccer works. But the real question is – How do these ladies feel of their chances of winning another Deaf World Cup? They answered back “No.” They do not feel they could win it, they believe they can win it.

Kate Ward can’t wait. “I’m very excited about this year’s squad. We have a great mix of young and old talent, and we have a lot of depth. I think that anyone can step on the field and impact the game. Factoring in the recent attention and support we have received, as well as the passion every single player has for the team, I know that none of us would be happy with anything less than a World Cup title.”

To represent your country is the ultimate dream of any young athlete. While being deaf may have held these women back in some aspects, it also presented them with an opportunity to wear red, white, and blue. I can’t imagine anyone would say “no” when their country comes calling. These ladies don’t just wear the uniform, they love it. They share such strong bonds with their teammates.

Allie Galoob talks about her most memorable moments with the USDWNT.”But I think about these two moments all the time: the moment I walked into the stadium during the opening ceremonies for the 2009 Taipei Deaflympics Games – it was so amazing. It was a packed house, we were walking on the field, waving at everyone and there were over 4,000 athletes on the field from all over the world, just awesome. And the second moment is really sort of a montage of sorts from the moment we won the gold against Germany (2009) and Russia (2012, 2013)- running out to my teammates and crying tears of joy because we had accomplished something so great.”

Sydney Andrews adds “I think that we all bring something valuable to the team. We all have qualities that help make the team the amazing team that it is. I hope that the way I carry myself, the way I play and the way I treat my team is viewed in a way that emphasises my love and extreme pride I have for our team, the coaches, my teammates and what we stand for. This team has been such an amazing and unbelievable part of my life. Quite honestly it changed my life and I can’t ever express how grateful and honoured I am to play alongside these women and to represent my country.”

Soccer News - U.S. Women's Deaf National Team Champions
Photo via Goalnation.com

These players are just regular people, like you and I. They have bills to pay, careers to pursue, and school to finish. Add that to the fact they are travelling all over the country, and the world, putting their life on hold just to represent the national team. On the field, these women inspire us. Off the field, they make a difference in the world.

They do a lot of  charity work related to the deaf. Lexie Cano is majoring in nursing and says “I’ve always had a passion to help people. I’ve seen emergencies happened first-hand and had no idea what to do and I really want to be that person that responds to traumas. As cheesy as it sounds, I really want to make a difference in someone else’s life.”

Sydney Andrews went through the Physical Therapy Program at MWSU. Kate Ward is also applying for physical therapy school after finishing her degree in Cellular/Molecular Biology at Appalachian State University. I’m someone who has had physical therapy for five different things, Sydney and Kate are doing a tough job that is appreciated by many!

Allie Galoob was a prospective journalist, who studied communications at Saint Louis University. When CNN broadcaster Soledad O’Brien took notice of the team, she asked Allie to cover the team for CNN. Galoob was over the moon. Allie has also done some video work for US Deaf Soccer, along with some written journalism. Today, she is a high school teacher, and a JV soccer coach. She always tells her students and team about the achievements of her and her teammates on the USDWNT. They are left wide-mouthed, stunned, and inspired.

These ladies look up to many female athletes, especially members of the World Cup-winning USWNT. The USWNT respond saying that what the deaf national team has accomplished is inspirational. Much love is given both ways, the USWNT and other professional female soccer players have been buying plenty of the US Deaf Soccer shirts being sold on Etsy to raise money to send the USDWNT to Italy for the World Cup.

The USDWNT team members told me that they are inspired by not only what these women do on the field, but off the field. Allie Galoob tells me “Julie Foudy has been one my most admired athletes because of several reasons. She is clearly one of the hardest working athletes who also excelled academically. She showed me what a true student athlete does – work hard on the field and even harder in the classroom. I admire her even more for what she has done post-soccer. She created opportunities for young girls to become strong, confident leaders of the future. She worked diligently to help create a stronger platform for female athletes. She doesn’t want her legacy to be about soccer, but rather about service. That is an incredible and selfless person. I hope to one day be able to give back to soccer, sports and girls in such a way that Julie Foudy has been able to.”

Sydney Andrews adds “I have had the privilege of meeting a couple of current USWNT players and they are all so inspiring. Not only in the way they play but in who they are as human beings and just how they have become such great role models. I particularly enjoy the women who use their platform to create more awareness for important issues that matter to them and choose to use their spotlight to bring significance to society. As cheesy as this may be, I would say my teammates. They inspire me every single day to put in the work and be the best I can be on and off the field.”

malpew:“ waaaay up i feel blessed ” waaaay up we feel blessed
NWSL players supporting the USDWNT by buying shirts. Photo via usdeafsoccermates.tumblr.com
Via @hopesolo on Twitter

This team needs our money and needs our support. The entire team is self-funded. Field rentals, insurance, equipment, travel, food, etc. is all out of the pockets of the members of the team. Some colleges and high schools have been courteous enough to let US Deaf Soccer use their facilities. US Soccer officially recognises US Deaf Soccer as an organisation, but gives no funding.

It’s one thing to put your life, your career, and/or your schooling on hold while training and competing for the USDWNT. It’s another to pay your way there, while missing out on income from being away for those many weeks per year. Many of the girls are still in college (a few still in high school!) and we all know that college tightens your purse strings. Thankfully the USDWNT plays in the summer so classes are not an issue, but it is still a huge commitment from the team members.

Many of the players have their own GoFundMe pages, with the USDWNT one here. You can buy the aforementioned shirts and other gear here. US Deaf Soccer accepts donations on their website, where you can find out more about the women’s and men’s national teams, here. You can use the sub-domain, smile.amazon.com (you MUST put smile in front of Amazon each time you use the website!) and select USA Deaf Soccer as your charity of choice. Amazon donates 0.5% of each purchase you make on Amazon, out of their pocket, to the charity you chose.

You don’t have to donate. But that doesn’t mean you have to sit back and do nothing either. Follow @USDeaf_WNT , like them on Facebook, share articles and the stories about these inspiring athletes representing our country. You might not donate, your friend who shares the post might not either, but their friend will, and so on. By raising awareness, we are helping to send donations their way, but also raising awareness of hearing loss, which affects 66 million Americans.

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