Perhaps the only improvement Kate Ward hopes to see — or hear — at this year’s Deaflympics is the playing of the national anthem.
When the U.S. soccer team she started for won the gold in Taiwan four years ago, the players weren’t allowed to use their hearing devices. Hence, they couldn’t hear the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I was really disappointed about that,” said Kate, who grew up in Chamblee. “At the same time, I’m on a deaf team.”
This year’s games will begin in Bulgaria this week and Ward should be a starting midfielder, where she played as a 15-year-old at the 2009 games, on Friday when the U.S. opens against Greece. The U.S. team, which also includes Kennesaw State’s Julia Nelson, is the favorite again this year based, upon the 2009 performance as well as winning the world championship in Turkey last year.
Ward and her family carry those gold medals with them when they go on trips for safe-keeping. It’s a sign of how much soccer means to Ward as well as how much she has enjoyed the journey.
She was diagnosed as deaf in one ear when she was 3 years old and was first given a hearing aid. Her dad, Tony, signed her up for soccer when she was 4. She loved it.
But she realized at the age of 6 that the device wasn’t working as well. Within a month, she had become deaf in both ears. Her mother, Joan, said the hearing loss was related to an auto-immune issue, though there was no family history of the condition.
Within a month, Ward received a cochlear implant in her left ear, a device that simulates hearing. She hated it at first because she said it gave everyone cartoon voices.
Joan told her if she wore the device every day for a week, they would buy her a $55 Braves jacket. They still have the jacket and Ward soon developed an appreciation for the implant, which costs more than $100,000.
“The cochlear implant has gotten me to places that I would never go without it,” she said.
But when she played soccer, the earpiece would occasionally fall out. Kate didn’t care and would keep going, although her coaches or an occasional teammate would panic and drop to the ground to look for it.
Ward continued to excel in soccer, playing for various academies.
She was noticed by the coach of the U.S. men’s deaf team when she was 12 while playing in a tournament in Columbus. When her parents asked if she was interested in trying out for the women’s team, she told them that she wasn’t deaf.
“I had never been exposed to that,” she said.
They passed on the idea, not because of Kate’s initial impression but because they thought she was too young.
She tried out three years later and had to overcome a few hurdles. The team communicated mostly through sign language and Kate had forgotten what little signing she had once learned. As they drove into the camp, she frantically searched her cell phone for the gestures to sign her name.
But she persevered and a few months later was on an airplane to Taiwan for the Deaflympics, not knowing if she was going to play or what to expect.
She started every game, scored a few goals and came back with memories that she will never forget. A 20,000-seat stadium was packed. The athletes walked down streets lined with people cheering for them.
“It was incredible,” she said.
She’s not sure what to expect in Sofia, Bulgaria, but she does know what to expect at the Deaflympics, previously known as the World Games for the Deaf.
Organizers are very strict regarding hearing devices: they can’t be used. Players are given hearing tests and if they can hear more than 55 decibels in their better ear, they aren’t allowed to play. (Measurements between 55 and 71 decibels signify moderately severe deafness.)
Players will communicate with sign language and hand gestures. Coaches have sign-language interpreters. Referees use flags to signal fouls.
When she returns from Bulgaria, Ward will report for her sophomore year at Appalachian State, where she’s on the soccer team after a standout career at St. Pius.
She is uncertain if she’s good enough to play professionally and is considering medical or dental school instead. But she knows she wants to continue to playing soccer on the Deaflympic team. The experience has been invaluable.
“It’s really changed my perspective on who I am as a person and what God has given me to deal with,” she said. “It’s much bigger than myself. It’s something that can help little girls who are like me.”