Feature by Mallory Cage
COLUMBIA, South Carolina, September 29. EIGHT years ago, Bill Snape had what he calls a midlife crisis, others may call it fate. After separating himself from swimming for more than a decade, Snape felt the pool calling him back. He had been working in D.C. at a law firm when he found the listing for a swim coaching position at Gallaudet University. The position seemed perfect, it would allow him to be involved in the swimming world again but also keep his full-time position.
There was one detail that would have caused many people to turn away however; Gallaudet is the only university in the country that is specifically for deaf and hard of hearing students. This meant none of his athletes would actually be able to hear him when he called out workouts or cheered for them at meets.
Snape can hear and had never used sign language, but these details did not faze him at all. He applied for the position and was hired.
During his eight years at Gallaudet, Snape has had many accomplishments including being named the Coach of the Year in the North Eastern Athletic Conference after both the men’s and women’s teams took home the championship in 2010-11. His success at Gallaudet led to a chance to be the head coach of the U.S. Deaf World Championship team and he is now the Director of U.S. Deaf Swimming.
Throughout his time at Gallaudet and his experiences with the deaf world championship team, Snape would slowly learn sign language but there was one lesson he learned quickly. “Deafness by itself is not a disability,” said Snape.
It was this attitude that has propelled Snape to work on improving the United State’s National Deaf Team. The team has struggled to grow throughout the years because of a lack of funding and organization, but with the combined efforts of Snape and some of the veteran athletes, the U.S. sent one of the largest teams ever to Portugal for Worlds this past summer.
“Being a veteran deaf swimmer now, I’ve watched the U.S. deaf team grow from a small, nonexistent team to literally the world champions over the past six years! When I stood on the podium with my relay, I remembered years back when we only won one or two medals, but now here we were, winning nearly everything. That, in itself was inspiring,” said Tulane’s Kristin Ates, a veteran of the deaf swimming world.
Ates has been an active part of the deaf swimming community for most of her life. She has participated in the World Championships and the Deaflympics and was a big part of recruiting more swimmers to the team this year. After months of emails and Facebook messages, Kristin and her teammates were able to add many new members to the team and with the additions came an even greater chance for success.
“There were a large number of new swimmers on our team, which meant our team had a lot of potential to do even better than before, so it was interesting to see what would happen.”
Through word of mouth and social networks, the veteran swimmers worked to bring together the most talented team possible despite the lack of funding. While the team did not spend the year training together, Snape kept aware of their progress and knew they were on the right track before they met in Portugal.
A total of 19 athletes, 10 men and nine women, flew to Coimbra, Portugal and began competition on August 6. The meet lasted seven days, and although the team got off to a slow start, they finished off better than ever. The team won 11 gold, four silver and seven bronze medals and took the overall team trophy as well, beating out the heavily-favored Russian team.
While the fast swimming was exciting, Ates says the most the most exciting thing was just being reunited with her old teammates and connecting with new ones.
“I was really excited just to see my old friends again, both on the U.S. team and internationally,” said Ates. “After traveling to the 2005 Deaflympics in Melbourne, Australia and the 2007 World Deaf Swimming Championships in Taipei, Taiwan, I had already formed strong friendships with many other deaf swimmers.”
“You cannot underestimate how joyful it is for these elite athletes to get together and to be together as deaf athletes,” said Snape. “It is a cultural celebration.”
An entirely deaf swim meet is not much different from a hearing one; there is still lots of cheering, fast swimming and plenty of memories being made.
“There is something special about traveling abroad and competing with other deaf athletes who are just like you, and the bonds I’ve made at these deaf competitions aren’t the kind that fade,” said Ates.
Ates, like the rest of her deaf teammates, has spent most of her swimming career on all-hearing teams.
“It is a constant struggle just making sure you’re not caught a half step behind,” said Snape.
This meant that she had to constantly be aware of her surroundings in case a coach or fellow swimmer forgot they had to physically get her attention instead of just yelling her name.
“Growing up, I’ve always trained and competed with hearing swimmers both with my club team, MAC (Mecklenburg Aquatic Club), and Tulane (University). As much as I enjoyed those experiences, it still wasn’t the same as being in a completely deaf environment,” said Ates. “It was great to compete with athletes who understood exactly what I go through on a day-to-day basis.”
Arizona’s Marcus Titus was also a member of the team and by the end of the summer he had not only made a name for himself in the deaf community but in the hearing community as well. Titus finished third at the U.S. Swimming Senior Nationals in the 100 breaststroke and then headed to Portugal where he broke two deaf world records.
“I was lucky in that the U.S. National Championships and the Deaf World Championships coincided,” said Titus. “I was training for both simultaneously; this allowed me to taper for both meets at the same time.”
Deaf Worlds was Titus’ first international deaf competition and he says that although he’s always felt included on every team he’s been a part of, there was something different about this experience.
“It was just one more level of inclusion that I’d never experienced before…maybe an unspoken understanding. Everyone was eager to get to know each other, to make new friends, to include each other in conversations and to support one another. Thanks to this experience, I’m very comfortable in my own skin. It’s something that I always have with me now.”
Like Ates, he attributes this to the fact that they are all in a similar situation.
“Because we all use sign language, we have little margin for miscommunication. I felt more at ease and assured that I was getting 100 percent of the details. I didn’t have to worry or be constantly alert for some out-of-the-blue comment,” said Titus.
Both Ates and Titus agree, however, that although they may communicate differently than hearing swimmers, the swimming and the competition is still the same.
“It isn’t entirely different having my competition be deaf, it’s still competition!” said Ates.
And in this meet they were all even footing. At mostly hearing meets, a deaf swimmer must rely on a signal to take-their-mark from the starter and then the swimmer must look for the light. If an official forgets to signal or a light malfunctions, it can put a deaf swimmer at a disadvantage.
At the Deaf World Championships, swimmers were started by a series of lights. Three lights, all different colors that would go in a sequence to tell the swimmer when to take-their-mark and when to go.
While there was still room for error and many swimmers had to adjust to the new system once arriving at the meet, it was still declared an effective starting system by many of the swimmers there, including Titus who says at hearing meets he tries to only focus on himself.
“My competition is myself and I worry about my swim. Whether my competitors are hearing or deaf does not influence me. I want to swim my best swim,” said Titus “When I’m on those starting blocks, I’m just focusing on that light, waiting to go. I’m already in the zone, concentrating on my race and how my body feels. I like the fact that I’m in my own world on those blocks.”
The team is using the success at this meet to draw more attention to the deaf swimming world and specifically the U.S. team. Snape hopes to bring an even larger to team to the Deaflympics in 2013 where the team will face even more competition including a talented Chinese team.
However, the goal remains the same, to enjoy the competition with friends.
“This experience would not have been the same if I hadn’t had my closest deaf friends with me,” said Ates. “When I look back at this meet, I don’t remember my swims as much as I remember the fun times I had with my teammates.”