Winning Sounds Like This: Marcus Titus and Kristin Ates, Deaf Not Disabled

By Carrie Moore

PHOENIX, Arizona, July 20. FROM a distance, Marcus Titus and Kristin Ates may look like any other swimmer at a meet. They've practiced, tapered, and long-prepared for their upcoming race. But Titus and Ates are different from their competitors. Cheers are distant, they rely on signals and gestures; they're deaf.

But neither sees their self as a deaf swimmer. Both have goals, dreams, and a passion for their sport like any other athlete in the world.

The number of college athletes with hearing impairments has risen steadily since the approval of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which protects students against disability discrimination and mandates interpreters for deaf students at universities. According to Deaf Digest Magazine, 76 deaf and hard-of-hearing students played NCAA and NAIA sports in 2008; 39 students played in Division I sports.

Titus, who swam four years for the University of Arizona, is proud of his time on the team and as a national team member. While some may consider his condition as a disability, that doesn't stop him from winning.

Titus has profound hearing loss in his left year and severe hearing loss in his right ear. He must wear a hearing aid in his left ear to be able to hear. Without his hearing aid, Titus must rely on ASL (American Sign Language) to communicate.

"I've made deafness an advantage for me," he said. "Swimming is not just a physical sport, but you also need a mental edge. I use it so I don't get distracted by what others are saying before and during my competition."

Titus also attributes his condition to helping him concentrate on what's ahead and how his body feels. He doesn't need to listen to music, unlike his competitors.

"For me, I'm immediately in the zone."

While being deaf may be an advantage, it can also be a hindrance. Compared to others, Titus can miss details in conversations.

"If I get out of the pool and my interpreter isn't around, my coach has a difficult time giving me instructions on how to improve my stroke," he said. "I'll miss out on what a teammate may say to me while in the pool if I can't read their lips or I may misunderstand what is going on. In this way, I tend to get a little isolated."

One of the driving forces behind Titus and Ates, like every other swimmer, is their coach. Their swimmer-coach relationship doesn't vary from everyone else. The only thing different in their relationship is communication.

"The communication doesn't differ between us so much," Ates said. "She just makes sure she faces me when she gives me instructions so I can read her lips."

When coaching deaf athletes, the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability (NCPAD) suggest learning some phrases in ASL, such as ‘do you understand?' It is also important to grab their attention in a different way; yelling won't make a difference in their performance.

"Communication is critical in swim practices and I rely on interpreters a lot," Titus said. "The communication between me and my coaches is very good. They understand my situation and they make sure I catch everything they have to say."

The communication between Titus, Ates and their respective coaches soars. Neither Titus nor Ates feel any different from their teammates.

An average day in the pool for Titus and Ates isn't that different from everyone else. The whole team trains together, encourages and criticizes each other. Once in the water, Titus relies on his memory of workouts, lip-reading, or his near-by interpreter. Ates relies on her superb lip-reading skills.

"It's handy when my coach is at the other end of the pool and I can still know what they're saying or what they may be talking about with other coaches," she said.

Competitions vary for Titus and Ates. Since Titus cannot wear his hearing aid in the water, he relies on an interpreter to help him understand what is going on.

"I have a much easier time and much more fun time at meets when my interpreter is around," he said. "If not, I rely on myself to communicate with the coaches and event staff."

Before racing, Titus and Ates rely on a starting hand signal or the strobe light.

"Sometimes I actually end up having one of the faster starts, because light travels faster than sound," Ates said. In the beginning of her career, Ates struggled with hearing the starting system. Now there's no limit to her success.

Ates's grandparents introduced her to swimming when she was six; shortly after that she began swimming for her local club, Mecklenburg Aquatics. Since then, she has competed in Australia for the 2005 Deaflympics (winning a silver medal in the relays) and in Taiwan for the 2007 World Deaf Swimming Championships, where she claimed two gold, one silver and two bronze medals in individual events; she currently swims for Tulane University.

Ates, who was born with bilateral sensory neural hearing loss, doesn't let deafness hold her back. She has a cochlear implant that helps her hear; she also relies on lip reading.

"I've never really thought about how my deafness played a role in swimming," she said. "It does help me sometimes in blocking out all background noises so I can focus better."

Despite her success in the pool, Ates is most proud of her scholastic achievements. She graduated valedictorian of her class and is a member of the National Honor Society and National Art Honor Society.

"I also got into the top schools I wanted, like MIT," she said. "That was a goal I had for a long time." Ates plans for a career in medicine.

Titus and Ates are just two of the many athletes with some kind of affliction. Their personal stories exemplify what determination and hard work can do. They're the perfect role models for young athletes.

"My advice to kids who want to be athletes like me or to be anything successful is to not be afraid of setting your goals high and doing what it takes to get where you want to be," Titus said. "Kids shouldn't be afraid to aim high; and kids shouldn't be afraid of failure.

Titus also believes in having a support system, like friends and family, and ignoring the people who doubt his capabilities.

"I am here today among the elite level swimmers because I believed in myself and had the support of my family and friends who believed in me," he said. "I did not let my hearing loss be a crutch, weakness or excuse."

Ates believes the same thing.

"A disability should never stop you from dreaming big," she said. "Don't let deafness, or any disability, stop you from anything."