AUSTIN (KXAN) — On a sunny Thursday afternoon in Austin, dozens of athletes line up along the track at the Texas School for the Deaf. With the flash of three lights, they zip down the 100-meter straightaway.
Off South Congress Avenue, some of the country’s premiere track and field athletes train for the 24th Deaflympics, the equivalent to the summer hearing Olympics set to begin with Friday’s opening ceremony.
Unlike the Special Olympics and the Paralympics, which are created for athletes with different intellectual and physical abilities, Deaflympics athletes are on par with hearing Olympians physically but use non-auditory starting signals during competitions.
The only difference between the two organizations’ athletes is their ability to hear, associate coach Larry Smith said.
“All of us here, we’re all the same kind of people,” he said. “The only thing that’s different is our lack of hearing. We can do so many things, exactly the same way that hearing people do.”
The Summer Deaflympics, established in 1924, is the world’s second-oldest international sports competition next to the Summer Olympics. This year’s competition was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and is now scheduled for May 1-15, 2022 in Caxias do Sul, Brazil.
Athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics are supported by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee and often acquire sponsorships to help pave the way financially. But when it comes to public awareness and Olympic funding for athletes, that’s where there’s a stark divergence between the two groups, he said.
Contrary to the hearing Olympics, the USOPC doesn’t provide funding for athletes competing in the Deaflympics. Each athlete is expected to raise around $4,500 to attend the competition, with an overall team cost of roughly $180,000.
Smith has coached the USA Deaf Track and Field team in the Deaflympics since 2008. Each year, fundraising proves to be the biggest difficulties.
“We’ve been successful for these three Olympics, meeting the goals and the needs,” he said. “We don’t get any [USOPC] funding or any funding from the government, no sponsorships, nothing like that. We completely depend on the private sector and families and friends.”
All coaches and athletes are volunteer, paying their way to train athletes and compete in the Deaflympics. It’s an overwhelming disparity that continues to frustrate star Olympian Taylor Koss, a three-time Deaflympics veteran and four-time medalist.
“My experience is frustration, and I just want to focus on training, but I have to think of fundraising, and I’ve got to juggle both of them,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful family and wonderful friends who are creative with the fundraising.”
Justina Miles just graduated high school a few months ago and is gearing up for her first time competing in the Deaflympics. She said the first step toward breaking down stereotypes against competitors is discarding the idea of deafness being a weakness or a disability.
Just like any other elite athlete, her goal remains the same: earn a medal and have an amazing time competing for it.
“Really my big goal, my big focus is, of course, to get a medal,” she said. “I mean, I’m really excited for the relays, because I’m a big team player. I’ve never been an individual player. There are individual sports for people who are so fast, but the relay, that’s the part that I’m with, is such a team.”
Smith has loved track since he first tried out the sport at 10 years old. A lifelong Austin resident, he has spent the past 26 years coaching at the Texas School for the Deaf.
In a world catered toward those with hearing, it can often feel like people who are deaf or hearing impaired exist on the outskirts.
The first time he went to the Deaflympics? It was like a homecoming he hadn’t realized he’d been missing, he said.
“I feel there’s a sense of belonging and unity and diversity,” he said. “It’s one culture, and it’s deaf. The language is entirely the same. Everybody can completely understand each other.”
To donate to the USA Deaf Track and Field team, click here.