When Heidi Zimmer was just 2 years old, she was playing outside and wandered onto the roof of a neighboring church. Her panicked parents knew talking her down was not an option, as Zimmer was deaf since birth. Scared of heights, they summoned a student from nearby Arizona State University to bring their adventurous toddler to safety.
“I think that was the moment when I was first inspired to climb mountains,” said Zimmer, who became the first deaf woman to reach the top of Mt. McKinley in 1991, after which she proudly unfurled a banner reading, “DEAF WOMAN, A PARADE THROUGH THE DECADES” (a play on words from the book, “Deaf Women: A Parade Through the Decades, co-authored by Mabs Holcomb and Sharon Wood, that was published two years earlier).
She reached the summit of Mt. Elbrus three years later and Mt. Kilmanjaro two years after that. While her deafness was considered genetic, Zimmer has since been diagnosed with Usher's Syndrome, a leading cause of deaf-blindness in adults, but she still plans to overcome the obstacles and seek the funding necessary to reach all seven summits.
Aside from a personal goal, climbing mountains stands as a metaphor for all athletes with obstacles, such as full or substantial hearing loss.
Many others—most notably 1984 gold-medal swimmer Jeff Float, 10-time WNBA all-star Tamika Catchings (MVP, 2011), three-time motocross champion Ashley Fiolek, and record-setting distance runner—turned—congressman Jim Ryun (1968 silver medal)—have succeeded, but that height of success is born of humble beginnings rooted in a history of intolerance.
Back around the turn of the prior century, for example, several baseball players—including accomplished pitcher Luther Taylor and outfielder William Hoy—were called “Dummy,” even in newspapers, in place of their first names.
Jack Ulrich played ice hockey in the forerunner to the NHL, the NHA, in the World War I era of outdoor rinks. He detested being called “Dummy” in print to the extent that he penned a letter of protest to the Toronto World about it and received an apology, after which he was referred to by his preferred nickname of “Silent” Jack Ulrich.
BREAKING THE ICE
Fast-forward several decades, Jim Kyte became the first legally deaf NHL skater in 1982, suiting up for the Winnipeg Jets after the team drafted him in the first round.
“I was extremely nervous and excited, but I never looked at my first game in the NHL with a sense of history,” reflected Kyte, who has since been followed into the league by another first-round pick, Steve Downie, who is deaf in one ear as a result of otosclerosis. “I was making personal history—reaching a milestone I had dreamed about, just like many other kids who grew up playing hockey.
“Looking back, it did make league history but I did not appreciate it at the time. Nobody else—media, teammates, family, and friends—made a big deal about it, either. I never thought of myself as a deaf hockey player. I am a hockey player who is deaf. In my mind, there is a big psychological difference between the two.”
A bruising defenseman at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Kyte did not deal with the “Dummy” moniker, although YouTube is filled with plenty of video clips of Kyte using his fists to defend his more diminutive teammates.
Because hockey is a game that relies heavily on communication, Kyte developed ways to bridge the gap—reading lips of his coaches, reminding officials to blow the whistle loudly, using the glass above the boards to see reflections, and developing arm signals with his own goalie—while on the ice.
He had challenges while not playing as well. “Socializing off the ice, you need to have a sense of humor about yourself,” he said. “Being teased is part of the camaraderie, and you can't take it too personally. Some teammates were very inquisitive, and I let them try on my hearing aids, which was very comical.”
WINTER OF DISCONTENT
While Kyte adjusted well, retired football player and motivational speaker Blaise Winter can relate to those baseball players of yore. Born in 1962, he was also mislabeled as “special needs” as a youngster—with hearing loss being one of several challenges he faced after being born with a cleft lip and palate.
Winter heard well enough to hear all the insults, and began to believe the naysaying of his peers over the encouragement of his mother. He eventually sought refuge in football, as well as martial arts.
“It was like the whole world was against me, like the whole world saw me as deaf and dumb, and you start to believe it,” said Winter. “You think, ‘I'm nothing, and I can't do anything.’”
While both Kyte and Winter were under the watchful eye of audiologists as they grew up, and took part in contact sports, neither was discouraged from playing.
“I'm sure conversations took place and choices were made, based on the danger,” he said. “My mother's approach was, ‘If you wear a helmet, what's the worst that could happen?’ People today might say that's silly.”
Added Kyte: “I do not recall anyone ever telling me not to play for safety reasons because I could not hear. That said, perhaps my father dealt with some naysayers.”
FUEL TO THE FIRE
Silencing naysayers, and being teammates with many of his previous tormenters, was both surreal and inspiring for Winter, who began playing football in middle school.
“It was the best thing for me,” he said. “I felt like I was finally on a level playing field. I learned to grow with it, and I was thankful. No one asked you to talk. They asked you to hear the plays, but people made adjustments. Football became my voice, my look. It gave me direction. I wanted to become a football player.”
Zimmer, a graduate of Gallaudet University, a school geared toward deaf and hearing-challenged students, had a similar experience growing up in Southern California.
“I was always at the academic bottom of my class,” recalled Zimmer, who found no help from using hearing aids and “threw them away” by age 11. “This was embarrassing to my mom, especially since she had always been a top-notch student. Each teacher told my mother that I belonged in a lower grade, and my high school teachers told my mother to not expect me to go to college. The interesting thing is that, because of my determination to keep gritting my teeth and struggle through school, I was the first person in my class who finished college.”
Still, sports—the need to climb figurative mountains—became her initial proving ground.
“Even as I learned how to sign, I struggled to speak and got more frustrated trying to communicate with family, relatives, and oral teachers because they all could not sign or communicate with me,” said Zimmer. “It had an impact on my drive to learn and communicate with them. When I turned to physical activity, it gave me a feeling of positive self-esteem and confidence. I was involved in a variety of sports, including volleyball and track and field from junior high through college. I also competed in the women's high jump event at the World Games for the Deaf, now called the Deaflympics, in 1969 and 1973, and won the bronze medal in Yugoslavia in 1969. Sports were my outlet.”
FINDING A PLACE
Despite a stellar career, Winter's coach at Tappan Zee High School in New York discouraged him from dreaming big. “No colleges came around,” said Winter. “I went to my high school coach with a list [of colleges], and he informed me it wasn't realistic.”
Winter and his mother took a road trip to all the schools on his list—from nearby Syracuse to Penn State to Pitt to Ohio State—and, without formal visits planned, “didn't get past the receptionist.”
On the way back from Ohio State, his mother stopped at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. A frustrated Winter initially refused to get out of the car, but he eventually went inside and came out inspired to give Syracuse one more try.
“I was thinking about some of the people I read about in the Hall of Fame because they weren't all perfect, either,” said Winter, who turned a tryout at Syracuse into a roster spot as a walk-on and was soon awarded a scholarship.
A standout career at Syracuse led to being drafted in the second round of the National Football League (NFL) Draft by the Indianapolis Colts in 1984. He again silenced critics after being named to the American Football Conference (AFC) All-Rookie team. He played for the Colts, San Diego Chargers when they reached the Super Bowl, and the Green Bay Packers.
In that same time window, deaf defensive lineman Kenny Walker came out of Nebraska and played two seasons for the Denver Broncos before becoming the first deaf player in the Canadian Football League.
In 2012, Derrick Coleman, who was deaf since the age of three, made the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent out of UCLA. A fullback, he was the first offensive player in league history. He earned a Super Bowl ring with the Seattle Seahawks and currently plays for the Atlanta Falcons.
Citing technological advancements—helmets for quarterbacks to hear plays from the coaches and customized helmets for other players (faceguards, prescription, and tinted face shields, etc.)—Winter believes that only the low number of players with significant hearing loss obstructs the way of technology to help.
“They are customizing helmets to individual heads now. They can create this for that, and that for this. They would be able to do something when, years ago, it was not possible. The way they are designing helmets now, there could be ways to create cavities in them for hearing aid support,” he said, while lamenting the communication issues he had with coaches, teammates, and officials while playing. “There are really not a lot of us who can't hear very well. I suppose—in five, 10, 15 years—it could be different.”
PUT ON ‘BETTER GLASSES’
While Walker and Coleman entered the NFL legally deaf, Winter's hearing continued to diminish throughout his NFL career. Winter is legally deaf in his right ear, and also has hearing loss in his left ear.
Winter said he “always had a lot of blood on his pillow” because of his cleft palate, but was brought back to reality one day at practice when defensive line coach Gunter Cunningham accused him of having “an attitude problem.” Cunnigham didn't buy Winter's apology and explanation of a hearing problem and advised him to see a doctor. That led to the first of several ear surgeries but not an inordinate amount of time wallowing in self-pity.
“I've spent very little time in that state of mind,” said Winter. “Sports taught me that. My mother taught me that. I spent as little time as possible in the gutter of life. You have a choice, right? You ask yourself, ‘How can I become better?’ I tell people, ‘If you can't hear well, put on better glasses.’”
Kyte, whose father and four brothers were oral deaf (deaf with oral skills), also received support on the home front in his quest to play the sport of his home country, Canada, at the highest level.
“My parents always encouraged us to do whatever we wanted to do. My father, who was deaf and a great role model, always said, ‘You may have a handicap but you do not have a disability.’ I know the word ‘handicap’ is not politically correct anymore, but he was from a different generation. Again, it's an important but subtle psychological mind frame that made a big difference in my life.”
A sports columnist for the Ottawa Citizen upon retirement, Kyte is now the Dean of the School of Hospitality and Tourism at Algonquin College in Ottawa. He preaches the five P's—perspiration, positive attitude, preparation, perseverance and passion—to students, especially hearing-challenged athletes seeking the same dreams.
“Another critical point for people with hearing loss is self-advocacy,” said Kyte. “If you didn't understand something that was said, don't be afraid to ask the person to repeat it. If you are a lip reader, don't be afraid to ask someone to keep their hands away from their mouths. If you are in a public place or in school, don't be afraid to ask somebody to turn on closed captions on a TV or video.”
Explained Winter, who is recovering from brain surgery to remove a benign tumor, the complications of which led to two code blues: “It's always been about looking at adversity as a blessing. This is not fun. It's hell on earth until you decide to live with it.
“From sports, what I learned was blunt honesty. Strong people win. I always admired persistence, and I was persistent. Once I got a taste of it, I wasn't going to let it go. It is still the foundation of my life.”
Editor's note: Read our online exclusive on head injuries and hearing loss at www.thehearingjournal.com.