Starting February 9, the world will watch the accumulation of years of hard work and dedication come to a head during intense competitions at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. Each athlete has their own unique story, but today we’re focusing on those competitors who have overcome not only the odds but also their hearing loss.
Carlo Orlandi (Italy, Boxing)
Orlandi is said to be the first deaf athlete to compete in the Olympic Games. The boxer was a gold medalist in the 1928 Olympic Games. In 1929 he turned professional, and in the 1930s he held both the Italian and European lightweight titles. He was born a deaf-mute.
Tamika Catchings (USA, Basketball)
The 24-year-old WNBA star was born with a hearing loss and incredible athleticism. She has completed 15 seasons in the WNBA and has earned WNBA Finals MVP honors, as well as the Reynolds Society Achievement Award. The world-famous Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston annually gives this award to an individual who has overcome hearing, vision, or voice loss and who has distinguished themselves and provided inspiration to others.
Tamika writes on espn.go.com: “In the basketball world, it’s well-known that I was born with a hearing impairment that affects both ears. As a young child, I remember being teased for the way I looked with my big, clunky hearing aids and the speech problems that accompanied the hearing impairment. Every day was a challenge for me. There were plenty of days that I wished I was normal.
“That’s how sports first came into my life. In the classroom, kids could make fun of me for being different. On the soccer field (my first sport) and eventually the basketball court, they couldn’t. I outworked them, plain and simple. Eventually, I was better than them.”
Catchings intends to continue proving as much by joining an exclusive club (along with Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie) of the only American basketball players, male or female, to earn four Olympic gold medals.
Jeff Float (USA, Swimming)
Float is the first person to win gold medals in both the World Games for the Deaf and the Olympic Games. In 1977 he won 10 gold medals at the 13th World Games for the Deaf in Romania. In 1984 he became champion at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and he was the first deaf Olympian to openly display the universal “ILY” (“I love you”) sign on the pedestal during his medal ceremony at the Olympic Games.
The first deaf swimmer to win a gold medal, Float recalls to Sports Illustrated the moment that changed his life: “It was the first time I remember hearing distinctive cheers at a meet. I’ll never forget what 17,000 screaming people sound like. It was incredible.”
At 13 months old, Float contracted viral meningitis and consequently lost his hearing. He’s 90 percent deaf in his right ear and 65 percent deaf in his left. He now wears digital hearing aids.
He learned to read lips, but he was teased by other kids at school because of a lisp. He tells Sports Illustrated, “Kids would boost their self-esteem by putting me down. Swimming gave me the self-confidence I couldn’t find anywhere else. Besides, my name isn’t Field or Court. It’s Float — I had to swim.”
David Smith (USA, Volleyball)
At 6 feet 7 inches, this middle blocker has proven he can stand tall against not only the spike but also hearing loss. A member of the 2012 Olympic team, he also helped the U.S. men win the 2015 FIVB World Cup and qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Smith was born with mild to severe hearing loss and wears hearing aids to assist him on and off the court. He also finds hand signals and reading lips incredibly helpful to keep him on his A-game.
“To his credit, there hasn’t been a lot of adjustment,” says USA head volleyball coach Alan Knipe. “He’s very much overcome his hearing loss, and he very much wants to be another guy on the team.”
Frank Bartolillo (Australia, Fencing)
In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Bartolillo competed in the individual foil event as the top Australian fencer. On June 16, 2015, the Australian Fencing Federation announced the addition of the Frank Bartolillo Cup to the AFF Collection. The trophy honors the annual perpetual competition between the Australian state teams during the Australian Under-15 Championships. Bartolillo says that being deaf was an advantage as it enabled him to better concentrate.
Chris Colwill (USA, Diving)
This 5-foot-10-inch University of Georgia grad has participated in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. In 2008 he placed fourth in synchronized 3-meter diving and 12th in individual 3-meter, with an 18th-place finish in the individual 3-meter in 2012. Impressively, he placed fourth in the 3-meter at the 2006 FINA World Cup (the World Championships for aquatic sports) and won the gold medal in the 2007 Italian Grand Prix. In an interview when he was 14 years old, Colwill relayed the benefit of being without 65 percent of his hearing: limited distraction when he competes.