ASL proficiency promotes camaraderie on women’s cross country team

Francesca D'Annunzio

Six women on the UT women’s cross country team are American Sign Language (ASL) users — partially by coincidence, but not entirely. Olivia Thompson, one of the members of the team, is hard of hearing.

Thompson, a health promotion and disability studies junior, said she is able to race and practice with her hearing aids the majority of the time. However, with the incessant rain this past semester, there have been several occasions during which she has been unable to run with her hearing aids in.

“It’s been raining a lot the past two weeks, so I haven’t had my hearing aids in for some of the practices,” Thompson said. “They make waterproof hearing aids, but they’re not powerful enough for my hearing loss.”

Thompson has 80 percent hearing loss in one ear. Without her hearing aids, she cannot make out most sounds.

“I can hear (assistant coach PattiSue Plumer’s) voice a little bit, like screaming at meets, so it’s not completely silent,” Thompson said.

For most of her athletic career, wearing hearing aids did not present issues — except when she played soccer as a kid.

“Sometimes the ball would hit my hearing aid and it broke a couple times, so I had to be careful with that,” Thompson said.

Despite the challenges heavy rain can present, she never misses a beat during practices when she doesn’t have her hearing aids in. If it rains and she has to run without hearing aids, there are many people on the team who are ASL users who can fill in the gaps.

Several cross country runners study fields related to speech pathology or take ASL classes. Other players, including  chemical engineering junior Abigail Hirst and speech language pathology junior Destiny Collins, have close friends or family who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Collins got into ASL early in her college career and ended up switching majors because of it.

“At first I just wanted to take ASL to be able to talk to (my boyfriend),” Collins said.

The boyfriend’s first language was ASL because he and his parents are deaf.

Since Collins was not enjoying her pre-med classes, she started looking for another academic path and thought about how much she had enjoyed her communication classes.

“Then I realized what the (speech language and pathology) major does, and you get to possibly work with deaf children or people who have had strokes,” Collins said.

Plumer said she sees the girls signing to each other for fun sometimes.

“They sometimes sign to each other during warm ups and cool downs,” Plumer said. “Sometimes I’ll walk into a team meeting and see them signing. (Recently) we were bowling, and it was really loud, so you couldn’t hear very well. They were signing across the room to each other and to Olivia.”

The girls use ASL in situations even when there’s not necessarily a linguistic need because of  the risk of the rain ruining Thompson’s hearing aids.

“It’s such a natural part of our team culture,” Plumer said. “It’s great for her and for all of us.”